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In the opening sequence of Snow Falling on Cedars, the reader discovers that Kabuo Miyamoto has been accused of the murder of Carl Heine on the small island of San Piedro, Puget Sound, Washington. Ishmael Chambers, the island journalist and novel’s narrator, eloquently describes the atmosphere of the courtroom and the snowstorm outside. Both the demeanors and thoughts of the townspeople toward Kabuo and the significance of the snow’s ability to captivate and ensnare become part of the novel’s message.

Through Ishmael, a man who has grown up on the island along with accused murderer Kabuo, the now dead fisherman Carl, and Kabuo’s wife Hatsue, the author is able to do more than create a murder mystery. He composes a multi-layered tale involving friendship, family, love, and the difficulites we carry with us from the past. What makes these topics unique is the way in which he uses the history of the people on the island and the United States in order to discuss and analyze the events which took place.

Carl Heine died in a boating accident no one witnessed and Kabuo Miyamoto stands accused of his murder. The novel quickly reveals that both men, among others, were on their boats the night Carl died. More importantly, it is well known to most people on the island of 5,000 souls that the previous childhood friends had a falling out over their fathers’ monetary dispute involving farmland from years before.

Ishmael uses flash backs to tell  interweaving stories as he thinks about the past in relation to the unfolding events. One of his flashbacks explains the history Japanese immigration to the United States. Kabuo and Hatsue’s relatives had been among the Japanese to settle  in the Puget Sound. Since one of the only ways they knew to survive was farming and the United States’ laws forbid them from owning land or becoming U.S. citizens, many Japanese men were forced to rent land from white landowners. Kabuo’s father rented land from Carl’s father. The two men agreed upon an arrangement which would allow Kabuo’s father to purchase a portion of the land and “own” it without papers. Mr.Heine passed away before the agreement ever went through. Years later Kabuo and Carl were heard to have argued about the same issue just been Carl was found dead.

When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, the United States government had a reason to suggest it was suspicious of Japanese living in the U.S. Homes were searched and families of Japanese descent were sent to internment camps to live during World War II. This is where Kabuo and Hatsue, who had lived on San Piedro Island together and never once spoken, became close.

The reader soon finds that Ishmael’s interest in Kabuo’s case extends much deeper than journalism and past friendships. In the time before the war, Ishmael and Hatsue had a secret relationship. Ishmael could never seem to let go of the connection he felt for her, the love of his life. But, Hatsue had been forced to give up on Ishmael by her mother, who found his letters in the camp. As a girl she saw what her family went through, forced to live as criminals for years for their race. Now her husband is being tried for murder and it is obvious; once more, the town is using their ancestry as a weapon against him. Would he even be on trial if he were white? Will Ishmael use his influence to help or hinder Kabuo?

In attempting to recall the past and present of Kabuo, Carl, and Hatsue, the trusted island journalist finds himself in dangerous emotional and ethical territory. By covering the trial of Hatsue’s husband, Ishmael tries to piece together the past, for himself and the others he grew up with, in order to make the future comprehensible. The island has always been full of beauty, mystery, and corruption. Will there ever be a way to make sense of it all and do the right thing? Sometimes in life you may never know exactly what another person thinks or feels.  Although that may be what you really want and you will never obtain it, you may still have the ability to do the right thing. That is true love.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars

For more information: David Guterson

Film(1999) Snow Falling on Cedars