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David Guterson: Snow Falling on Cedars

Kabuo Miyomoto, a Japanese-American living on the island of San Piedro in the Puget Sound, is accused of murdering Carl Heine, a salmon gill-netter. The year is 1954. Miyomoto has been accused of murdering Heine on his fishing boat, when both were out fishing. On one level, the novel is a mystery – did Miyomoto kill Heine, how and why? But, more importantly, this novel is about the relationship between Anglo-Americans (which includes other Americans of European descent) and Asian-Americans. On the one hand, the Anglos still resent the Japanese for the war, even though many of the Japanese-Americans fought for the USA in the war. On the other hand, the Japanese-Americans resent the ill-treatment they suffered during the war, when many were interned and, in the case of Miyomoto, had their land stolen from them (by Heine’s mother). This bitterness still persists.

The local reporter is Ishmael Chambers. He lost an arm in the war as a result of a Japanese machine-gun attack. More importantly, before the war, he had a forbidden but passionate relationship with Hatsue, who is now Miyomoto’s wife. He can never forgive or forget his loss. Chambers, as well as Hatsue and Miyomoto and, indeed, the whole community, have to come to terms with what happened. The mystery, of course, is solved by the end of the book but the bitterness lives on. Guterson tells an excellent story, invoking not only the racial bitterness but, almost importantly, what it is like to live on a small island community like San Piedro, where people are often forced to live together with people they inwardly hate. Interestingly enough but not surprisingly, the strongest hatred is shown by Etta Heine, mother of Carl, who was herself born in Germany, yet is not the victim of the same prejudice shown to the Japanese-Americans.

Publishing history

First published 1994 by Harcourt Brace and Company