Customer Reviews: Snow Falling on Cedars: A Novel
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on July 6, 2000
Reviewer's Disclaimer: I grew up in the Puget Sound area and worked a couple of summers picking strawberries on farms owned by Japanese-American farmers.
Snow Falling on Cedars was an absorbing, thoroughly enjoyable read. At times an interracial romance, a murder mystery, a courtroom drama, and a fictionalized chronicle of the World War II internment of Japanese-Americans, this book pulls the reader into an accurate rendering of life on an island in Puget Sound. The disparate aspects of the novel are seamlessly interwoven into a narrative that allows the reader to embrace the plot, the characters, and the dead-on descriptions of the physical characteristics of the novel's setting.
The novel is narrated by Ismael Chambers, the publisher of the only newspaper on San Piedro Island, the fictional stand-in for Bainbridge Island, Washington. The islanders are, with few exceptions, either strawberry farmers or Salmon fishermen. When a white fisherman dies under suspicious circumstances, the evidence points towards a Japanese-American fisherman who was the last person to see the dead man alive. Ishmael's boyhood romance with Hatsue, the girl that later becomes the accused man's wife, provides fertile material for interesting flashbacks to the early 1940s, when virtually all of the island's Japanese-American population was carted off to internment camps soon after the bombing of Pearl Harbour.
I have always believed that one of the true marks of a great novelist is his/her ability to create believable characters of the opposite sex. Many well-respected writers fail at this task. In this novel, David Guterson's portrayal of Hatsue rings as true as any reader could hope for.
If you have seen the film based on the novel, please don't let its substantial shortcomings steer you away from this book, which is a must read for anyone who enjoys contemporary fiction.
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HALL OF FAMEon December 30, 1999
Snow Falling on Cedars is an interesting, low-keyed book about a time and a place unfamiliar to most readers.I enjoyed a it lot, both for its language and its human insights. I would never have expected, however, that this book would generate such extremely divergent responses from readers. Some think it is the best thing they ever read and others damn it as a waste of time. There is no question that much of what the critical reviews say is true: the book is slow, it is very long on detail, it jumps around in time, it doesn't focus on the 'mystery' and the trial, and the ending is somewhat predictable. But none of these things can be criticisms unless the author intended the book to be more fast paced, plot driven, and have a snappy surprise ending. The readers are really complaining that the book is not what they wanted or expected it to be - some more traditional mystery, love story, thriller type book - the kind of books that the shelves and best seller lists are full of and that demand nothing from the reader and deliver even less.
This book, on the contrary, is an evocation of time and place. It is largely 'memory' even though it is not a first person narrative. It asks the reader to relax into a poetic reverie on who these people are and how they came to the situation upon which the plot turns. The author does not push the mystery element except as an excuse to uncover more information about his characters, their relationships and the origins of their current lives.
Not everyone enjoys this kind of book. Certainly those who gravitate towards Jackie Collins or John Grisham should not be expected to find this to their likeing. Even those who read only 'serious' literature have special tastes and only some will appreciate this. Snow Falling on Cedars has a quiet voice and a simple mind. It doesn't shout at the reader and it doesn't present any concept of great difficulty or moment. The themes it deals with - love, justice, betrayal, honesty, etc - are all very basic and fundamental to narrative, and the author has nothing really new to say. Still, the packaging is pretty and the end result for the reader who enjoys the quiet, poetic tone of the book, is a great satisfaction.
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on April 9, 2001
"Snow falling on Ceidars" was my first novel by David Guterson. As always when I read a book by (for me) an unknown author I am a little extra excited. Gutersons' "Snow falling on Ceidars" did not disappoint me.
The story opens in a courtroom. Kabuo Miyamoto, a Japanese-American, has been arrested and is on trial for the murder of a local San Piedro fisherman. The core story follows the trial of Miyamoto, but the book brings in so much more. We get an interracial love story, a war story, and an unsolved mystery. All this is gradually and slowly unwrapped as the story about the people of San Piedro Island is told. Guterson has purposely chosen flashback as a way to tell the story to the different characters. An experiment that works quite well!
History has always fascinated me, and the topic on how the Japanese Americans was treated during World War II was especially interesting. I found the background information very helpful in understanding why the characters interacted with each other the way they did.
In summary this is a well-written novel, with realistic, flawed, sympathetic characters easy to identify with. At times very hard to put down.
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on December 22, 2005
I still find it difficult to believe that all of the most respected literary critics could be so wrong, but here I am, done with the book, and there is no doubt about it -- this is not at all the literary heavyweight that they had said it was.

Guterson's writing is elegant, I'll concede that -- but the book was more useful to me as a travelogue, taking me through the various seasons and forests/fields of a Northwestern island, than as a book of "truth". The treatment of racism in the book was incredibly superficial, as many readers have echoed. The Asian characters (I am Asian) were so stereotypical, particularly Hatsue with her outward tranquility and inward implacability (which dissolves inexplicably somewhere 2/3 through the book), Kabuo the incommunicable but virile man, wronged but wordless, of course, always wordless. All the Asians -- so silent and serious, no laughter, few tears, so resigned, and always faintly grieving. All of them, foreign and incomprehensible shadows. Ghosts, really. Guterson did such a poor job on Hatsue particuarly -- if he had gotten her right, the rest could've been dismissed as intentional ambiguity, but he didn't. It's almost tragic sometimes how uninspired his portraits of Hatsue are -- the endless descriptions of her exotic black hair, her serenity of movement, her beauty so imperturable and so still she could've been dead, or perhaps, she was. After the first half of the book, the woman didn't think anymore. She was just as inscrutable as her husband. And what's the point of reading about characters who are inscrutable, particularly when you have the nagging suspicion that they weren't just playing coy with you, playing at being an enigma, but that they were truly devoid of feeling, devoid of thought?

The book's most memorable character is the island itself. Secondarily, the character of Ishmael, who, pathetic as he is, is passably-rendered. The ending came far too quickly given the initial pacing of the book, and resolved nothing. For me, the "truths" that were supposed to emerge never came -- instead, they missed the cedars, melted into the snow, and never took shape.
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on November 8, 1999
I read this book with a heavy heart. I was asked to read it by a friend. I lost my dad in Vietnam and I've had a prejudice against Asian-Americans. But, this book went a long way in showing me how wrong I am to be so quick to judge someone. The descriptions of the interment camp, and the thoughts & feelings of the characters on being judged just because of their heritage was amazing. I didn't realize that I fit into the 'judger' catagory until I finished the book. I came to like the Japanese-Americans characters a great deal. I've opened my eyes to the world around me, and I'm trying to be more open-minded in my life. Thank you, Mr. Guterson.
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David Guterson has given us an amazing book in Snow Falling on Cedars. It is hard to categorize this novel as it's part murder mystery, part courtroom drama, part war chronicle and part romance.

The story begins in 1954 as a Japanese-American fisherman is on trial for murder. Kabuo Miyamoto is the chief suspect in the killing of fellow fisherman Carl Heine, because of a dispute over farm land. The entire book takes place on fictional San Piedro Island in Puget Sound. The inhabitants of this small island tend to be either gill-net fishermen or strawberry farmers. There are a number of Japanese on San Piedro, and there's an uneasy coexistence with the locals.

In flashbacks, Guterson takes us to life on the island prior to World War II. Living on the island could be hard, but rewarding. But things changed rapidly with the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Many Japanese men were sent to work camps. Soon after, the rest of them were relocated to internment camps. Many of the local boys (Japanese included) enlisted, and the author gives us glimpses of their war experiences. Those who returned home bore the scars of war, and these things set the stage for the murder trial.

This novel is so moving on so many levels. I was moved by the love story between Hatsue and Ishmael, two innocent teens who were kept apart by the prejudice of their parents generation. Guterson's love scenes were few, but tender. I was mortified by the ugly chapter in our nations past when American's of Japanese decent were herded into internment camps. Their treatment was deplorable. I was saddened by the continued prejudice toward the Japanese--even well after the war. My heart was also warmed by the heroic deeds performed by unlikely heroes. I was also awed by the beautiful prose that often bordered on poetry. In describing how a wife tried to help her husband recover from the war, Guterson writes "She sat across from him at the kitchen table at three o'clock in the morning, while he stared in silence or talked or wept, and she took when she could a piece of his sorrow and stored it for him in her own heart." It doesn't get much better than this.

This year isn't quite halfway over, but I already predict that Snow Falling on Cedars will be one of the best books I read this year.
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on February 1, 2000
Overall, I enjoyed this book very much. In particular I liked the evocation of the sea, snow and island way of life. The description of the geography was very powerful and one could almost taste the salt-ladden air and feel the cold. Sometimes I would re-read a paragraph two or three times, both so as to fully immerse myself in the beauty of Gutterson's prose and in sheer awe and appreciation of his skill with words and his keen sense of observation of people.
A strong feature of the novel is the way in which Gutterson shows readers how the environment has shaped his characters, for example, (1) Kabuo's obsessive yearning for his stolen land containing the strawberry fields, (2) Hatsue and Ishmael's childhood love affair, which grows from their fascination with the sea and cedar forests (I remember the imagery of the glass sea box), (3) later in the story, Ishmael draws comfort from the forest because it embodies Hatsue for him and reminds him of their intimate encounters in the cedar tree.
In terms of evocation of place and atmosphere, this book reminds me very much of Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow (or as Americans would know it, Smilla's Sense of Snow) and The Shipping News by E Annie Proulx. All three books have in common the sense of snow, the sea, sailing etc and have been favourites of mine for some time.
To me, this is a story about the tragedy of a man who cannot come to terms with the loss of a childhood sweetheart. Ishmael's war experiences impact upon his initial loss of Hatsue in many ways. Ishmael's yearning for Hatsue long after returning from the experience of war, is perhaps at times, a distraction which prevents him from realising the full horror of his war experiences (including the loss of his arm and his innocence).
I found the ending a little ambiguous. There were some hints/clues that Ishmael comes to terms with the loss of Hatsue. In particular, when he examines fishing boats strewn around the harbour by the storm and realises he has spent 12 years waiting for her to no avail. This seems like a key moment in the story, when he finally comes to the understanding that he has been waiting for someone whom he will never come to possess or connect with ever again.
Further, re-reading of the letter Hatsue sends to him from internment camp is another pivotal moment - it is what induces him to do the right thing (this and memories of his father and the high regard he was held in by the local Japanese) and hand over the information he has. Ishmael knows this is what Hatsue would have expected of him and her old letter reinforces this view.
Both Ishmael's mother and Hatsue tell him to get married and have children and the reader is left hoping that he might come to do this after achieving a sense of closure or peace by helping Hatsue and Kabuo in their predicament.
At one point I recall Ishmael asking Hatsue to hold him one last time, as though this would help him to heal. Toward the end of the book, Hatsue kisses Ishmael as a gesture of thanks (or goodwill perhaps) and I saw this as a sign of hope for Ishmael- not because he could perhaps recover Hatsue - but because he could move on from that point, with his life. Similarly, by handing over the information about the freighter, Ishmael is acknowledging the legitimacy of Hatsue's other life - that she belongs to someone else and not to him anymore.
I felt that Ishmael is at heart, a very lonely character and Gutterson portrays his loneliness so intensely that often times when reading, I would feel a lump in my throat. This was particularly the case in the scenes where Ishmael was visiting with his mother, when he tells her how unhappy he is, and when he realises that once his mother dies that he will be completely alone.
Some people, it would appear, would like a romantic and idealistic ending, but Gutterson should be commended on developing a female character with a strong sense of self. Perhaps it was that Hatsue felt overwhelmed by the intensity of Ishmael's feelings for her - like she was being suffocated. Afterall, she had no real choice but to love him from beginning. They didn't meet as adults and consciously move toward each other, but rather they met and loved each other firstly as children.
I felt that Hatsue was not only driven by her duty to her family and Japanese heritage, but her own will and sense of self-determination. She was ultimately better matched with Kabuo. She felt right with him, but with Ishmael, she felt wrong. Perhaps this was because Kabuo had a silent strength and with him she was not a possession but rather, a partner.
Despite all this, I didn't fully understand Hatsue's rejection of Ishmael. I know that it was largely tied up in her duty to her family and community. I understand the choice she made, but not what she meant by the words to him, "it seemed to me something was wrong......I loved you and didn't love you at the very same moment" But then again, even Ishmael concludes on the final page, that Hatsue's heart is unknowable.
Finally, I loved the description of the lives of the other Islanders - the defence lawyer and his frustration with his ageing, failing body, the embittered old Mrs Kleine, the passion of Carl Heine's and Susan Marie's marriage (results in much empathy for the dead man) and Ishmael's parents.
This book definately goes on my top ten list. Saw the movie recently and whilst it comes close, it does not quite capture the richness or complexity of the characters of Gutterson's novel.
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on November 10, 2001
Snow Falling on Cedars is the story of a small community on an island off Washington state, about ten years after the end of WWII. Though the island is isolated, its population is ethnically diverse. The main action of the story, however, takes place between Caucasians and Japanese, as a Japanese man, Kabuo Miyamoto, is standing trial for the murder of a fellow fisherman. Adding to this conflict is the tension between the local newspaper owner, Ishmael Chambers, and his boyhood sweetheart, a Japanese girl named Hatsue, who is now the wife of the accused Kabuo. Snow Falling on Cedars has several themes and elements that readily commend it to be read.
First, the book is a story of how racism affects a small, isolated community. Both Ishmael and Kabuo fought for America during WWII, and both men are crippled by the war, but in different ways: Ishamel by the loss of an arm, Kabuo by the distrust immediately after WWII that whites held against anyone of Japanese descent. The story deals with the unfortunate internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII, portraying (evidently accurately) what internees (prisoners) experienced in the camps.
Second, Snow Falling on Cedars is an intense love story, as Ishmael has never resolved his lost romance with Hatsue. As the community's newspaper man, he is in the awkward position of having to deal fairly, as a news man, with the very man who denied him a life with the girl he loves.
Third, the story is well-crafted. The prose is such that the reader feels the cold from the ubiquitous snow that sets the mood for most of the story. One feels the stuffiness of small rooms heated by over-active steam radiators. The reader will feel the frustration of the courtroom drama, as the opposing attorneys seem unable to arrive at the truth. And one wonders if Ishmael will go forth with the evidence that will determine the fate of Kabuo and the possibility of his own relationship with Hatsue. The main narrative technique of the story is the memory, as the narration alternates between past an present (seamlessly, most of the time), and the reader is shown how the horrors of WWII has affected the lives of the ordinary men who went to fight.
Snow Falling on Cedars is a very good read, but I recommend it for more mature readers, as some of the scenes, though tastfully done, are nonetheless unsuitable for young readers. Disturbing and bittersweet, Snow Falling on Cedars forces us to confront racism and to ask ourselves what we would do in the same situation.
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on March 9, 2000
Snow Falling on Cedars is a book that offers a little something for everyone. I enjoyed it a lot, for a variety of reasons. Some think it is the best thing they ever read while others see it as a waste of time. To me, this is a story about the tragedy of a man who cannot come to terms with the loss of a childhood sweetheart. Not everyone enjoys a story with a concentrated theme such as this, but the truth is this is only one of the many themes offered in Gutterson's novel. In the novel you can find themes such as racism, bigotry, love and legal affairs, and even loneliness. The themes are so broad in this novel, there truly is something for everyone to enjoy. I myself am a freshman in college, and it was my job to read, understand, and present to my peers this novel. Well in no way was this task a job, but more along the lines of an enjoyable experience. This is just one of those books that while reading, you just can't stop. Gutterson's attention to detail really made this novel shine. It is a difficult task to really provide the details necessary for the reader to really feel the events taking place, but Gutterson accomplishes this beautifully. Sometimes I would reread a paragraph two or three times, so I could fully appreciate the beauty of Gutterson's prose and sheer awe of his keen sense and observation of people. Descriptive passages in this novel are absolutely brilliant. The setting in this novel is described with so much detail you can't help to think either you're there, or you know exactly what it would be like to be there. The reference to the snow in this book is placed so perfectly and connects so well with the issues in the novel it is absolutely amazing. The best example of the placement of the snow, is the simple idea that the horrible snowstorm would not stop until the truth came out regarding the trial. The way Gutterson set this up was perfect. In a way, just by observing the mention of weather in this book, you could almost predict where the book was at and where it was going. Gutterson's characters in this novel are so complex, it is quite a task figuring them out. It is this complexity that makes these characters so likable and dislikable at the same time. While reading this novel, one can't help but begin to develop feelings and emotions towards them. Gutterson's creates characters with so much depth you feel as if every new detail is completely necessary for understanding the character. A key aspect of making this book so enjoyable, is the fact that the reader does not just feel as if they know the main characters, for Gutterson provides us with enough information to figure out the society as a whole. This feature of the novel puts it on a whole new level, as far as I am concerned. Many books out there, you feel as if there is no attention paid to the surroundings and the people whom occupy it, but not this book. The descriptions in this book spare no expense. One almost feels as if they can understand the society as a whole and even picture what the snow looks like falling on surrounding cedar trees. It is this attention to detail such as this, which makes this book so enjoyable. Gutterson truly created a masterpiece with Snow Falling on Cedars. I myself am not the most avid reader, so in result I am not much of a critic. As far as I am concerned this book had no down sides. I found myself not being able to put the book down, I completed it faster than any other novel I had ever been exposed to. I probably could have completed the novel even faster if I was not to have wanted to read every paragraph two if not three times. I highly recommend the novel to who ever enjoys a story full of beautiful ideas. Although the ending is predictable, trust me it is the ending that the entire book you hold out for. This was an extremely good read, and I am confident you will all agree.
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on December 17, 1999
I really loved this book until I got about 3/4 of the way through it. In fact, first day I had the book, I couldn't put it down. I loved the imagery, the character descriptions, the presentation of the historical facts around the Japanese internment during WWII. However, at a certain point in the book, the "mystery" about the murder became predictable. Some of the characters motivations for certain actions I found difficult to understand. And the ending....well I was expecting something *more*, and the book basically just fizzles out at the end. Overall, a good read, but not one of my favorites.
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