Book review: Snow Falling on Cedars, by David Guterson

This book is the best fiction novel I’ve encountered in a long while.

It exemplifies the scenic story, one steeped in the atmosphere of a particular place, both in geography and community. Those are the kinds of stories I like best and admire the most.

Moreover, it provided such a true and important study of the racism in post-WWII America, particularly in a small island community in the Pacific Northwest. All of that history is completely relevant to today and our contemporary fear of outsiders, of the Other, and solutions bandied about by all-too-popular presidential candidates.

It is crucial that we don’t forget what was done less than a hundred years ago, when we were afraid. The internment of Japanese-Americans was a travesty, a shameful day in our history, and we must not forget.

The humiliation and outrage of the FBI visit to Hatsue’s home nearly brought me to tears, its stark matter-of-fact details were so effective. That scene is the stuff of our dystopian fiction now, and it’s so hard to acknowledge it really took place in this country less than a hundred years ago.

Hisao didn’t answer. He sat in his sandals and sweater, blinking, holding his glasses in his hand. He waited for the FBI man to speak.


“Think of it as a war sacrifice,” the FBI man interrupted. “Figure to yourself there’s a war on, you see, and everybody’s making some sacrifices. Maybe you could look at it that way.”

Apart from the heavy historical content, I thoroughly enjoyed the character portraits, even the backstory of Ishmael and Hatsue’s teenage tryst in the romantic cedar tree. I enjoyed it, anyway, right until the moment Ishmael discovered the Coast Guard notes that offered substantial proof that Kabuo did not murder Carl Heines, and Ishmael did not take those directly to the judge, as he knew he should. Instantly, the whole story changed.

And from a technical viewpoint, I understand the suspense and weight that upped the stakes for the last quarter of the book. But from that moment on I hated Ishmael, was completely disgusted by the narrative focus on an actual monster, and just wanted the conclusion. Because if this was a story about a man withholding evidence that causes a man (a father with young children) to be hanged, whom he knows to be innocent, and all because of an adolescent relationship — I was so done. There are countless stories about men becoming monsters because they can’t let go of a woman who doesn’t love them back. I’ve lost all sympathy or tolerance for them.

It took way, way too long, but ultimately he made the right decision, and the novel did not have one of those miserable endings I encountered too often in my college literature courses, but neither did it promise too much of a change in Ishmael’s character or future, which also felt right.

Five stars, five stars indeed. And the most striking quote, from pretty early on, which really grabbed my attention:

His cynicism — a veteran’s cynicism — was a thing that disturbed him all the time. It seemed to him after the war that the world was thoroughly altered. It was not even a thing you could explain to anybody, why it was that everything was folly. People appeared enormously foolish to him. He understood that they were only animated cavities full of jelly and strings and liquids. He had seen the insides of jaggedly ripped-open dead people. He knew, for instance, what brains looked like spilling out of somebody’s head. In the context of this, much of what went on in normal life seemed wholly and disturbingly ridiculous.

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