Monday, April 21, 2014

Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson (17 of 166)

One Sentence Summary: The suspicious death of a local fisherman becomes a murder trial informed by the prejudices and agendas of residents of a post-war island community off the coast of Puget Sound. 


“To deny that there was this dark side of life would be like pretending that the cold of winter was somehow only a temporary illusion, a way station on the way to the higher "reality" of long, warm, pleasant summers. But summer, it turned out, was no more real than the snow that melted in wintertime.”
My love and I went to see a reading of David Mamet's play Race not too long ago and were blown away by the narratives of inherent racism and prejudice. We sat in the dark as the actors sparred for the salvation of our culture's very soul, it seemed. It frankly addressed the things that we skirt around when the conversation of prejudice comes up in real life: "I know it's a problem, but not mine." , guilt and shame, and the necessity of acknowledging that being a non-racist, for lack of a better word, is learned behavior- a painstaking process of unlearning. 

I was brought back there when reading Snow Falling on Cedars. As a reader, it is clear enough to see where old prejudices and anxieties come into play, even when the characters do not. The white population of the island comes across as long-suffering. They resent the presence of their Japanese neighbors even now, fifteen years after the conclusion of the war. For some, it is the echoes of their assailants from the Pacific theater, for some it is the deeply rooted sense of prevailing "otherness" that pervades their perspective on other races, and for some it is guilt- that they stood aside and did nothing as people they knew to be good and honest were torn from their homes and transported to internment camps. As the court case unfolds, it becomes increasingly clear that what the Japanese defendant projects as dignity, is perceived as defiance and with every psychological stroke against Kabuo and his family, your heart breaks with the injustice of it. Sadly, there may be more modernity to the commentary than one wishes to believe.

I was not loving Snow Falling on Cedars when I started it. I read Guterson's A Country Ahead of Us, A Country Behind last year and didn't really love it. There were a couple of stand-out moments in the short story anthology, but overall, it missed the mark for me. His moments of sparsity came across as pushing through to a part he would rather be writing, sometimes those moments were he chose to dwell on description, went on a couple of beats too long. Where there was balance, it was beautiful- but you shouldn't have to seek those moments out as a reader. I'm always wary of books with intersecting storylines where I favor one arc to the exclusion of the others. We've all been there, flipping ahead to see where the chapter ends so that we can sink back into the part of the story that matters, dammit. Snow Falling on Cedars fell into that trap, with one additional faux pas- the details meant to lend it a sense of the crime-novel procedural, instead served to bog it down. Usually those details are there to heighten your awareness. Any little piece could matter! Not so with this book- if something is going to matter, Guterson will let you know, so you can let your guard slip for all of those finnicky stacking paragraphs of info-dump.

Still, it's not fair to judge Snow Falling on Cedars as a glowing example of a mystery- I don't believe it's really written to be one. The crimes in this book run deeper than the murder of Carl Heine. The tragic incident is merely a backdrop for Guterson's more sweeping statements regarding the lingering mental state of the island-folk. He does a beautiful job bringing out the humanity of the majority of the characters and utilizes tropes to enhance his story, without letting his awareness slip and surrendering to the siren call of writing stereotypes for their simplicity, not their irony.  His real skill lies in developing characters as ultimately unknowable as real human kind and in bringing you to island of San Piedro. It unfolds, a deeply beautiful and treacherous landscape of sea, rock, lofty cedars, and tumbling strawberry fields, with a personality and a purpose. By the end of the book, you've walked the pathways and streets into familiarity. Guterson's passion for the locale is so clear and convincing that you cannot help but feel the melancholy of missing homeland during reading. For a moment in time, you belong to San Piedro and it is all too far away.  I understand why this book is considered a contemporary classic- why it's on so many high-school reading lists. The message is clear and unwavering, the themes are timeless. Where Guterson's momentum failed him, his conviction kept the story alive. It is certainly worth reading, if only to feel that you have traveled and seen a person for who they really are. After all, how often can we know a person's heart so intimately outside of the realm of literature?

Shelf Status: Moving Along

If You Liked Snow Falling on Cedars, you may enjoy: Cold Mountain, Amsterdam, Mystic River

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