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Carpe Librum

Bookish conversation with author Samantha Wilcoxson.


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Historical Novel Society

Review: Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson

Snow Falling on Cedars - David Guterson

I'm still trying to decide if I owe my book club an apology for suggesting this one. On one hand, this novel includes an interesting snippet of history and some beautiful descriptions of the Pacific northwest. On the other, I almost added it to my just-keep-skimming shelf because I couldn't get over the feeling that nothing was ever going to happen.

The author opens with "The accused man, Kabuo Miyamoto," a man that the reader eventually understands but is never given much reason to like or sympathize with. I realize that is a strong statement to make about an American of Japanese descent who suffered the imprisonment of his people after the attack on Pearl Harbor, but the author made me feel sorry for those people as a group, never Kabuo himself.

This book attempts to be many things: murder mystery, statement on prejudice and discrimination, WWII story, and narrative on habits of fisherman. Unfortunately, it is not a great example of any of these.

Almost from the opening statement, an avid reader can predict the outcome of the lengthy trial that is stuffed with repetitive dialog. (Hint: most writers do not write dialog the way we actually talk because it is BORING.) The murder mystery, if it is even meant to be one, is not very mysterious.

What this book does best is display the prejudicial tendencies that can be aggravated in the average person in a time of tragedy or war. While the author intended this to be shown by the treatment of the Japanese members of the San Piedro Island community, I truly felt that the man who may have suffered most from discrimination was Ishmael Chambers.

Ishmael was the only character I felt drawn to as I watched him dismissed as a nasty hakujin by the woman he loved. The reader cannot help but feel his inner turmoil when he is forced to the other side of the world as a young man to kill an army of men who share the physical features of the woman he longs for. These events define Ishmael and leave him unable to connect with other people over a decade later. Though he wasn't the one shipped off to an internment camp, he was the character who seemed to feel pain more deeply than any of the others.

This story is told through a series of flashbacks as Kabuo's trial is underway. The reader is slowly given a picture of how he has come to be arrested through events and attitudes that have formed over his entire life, not just the death of one man, Carl Heine. Overall, the author uses this method effectively, though I could have done without the sex scenes. I realize that I am in the minority on this.

Writing talent is evident, but the story and characters failed to move me.