image from amazon.com
Travel back in time with me, fourteen years ago or so. Bill Clinton was in the Oval Office, but no one yet knew who Monica Lewinsky was. Pearl Jam and Nirvana were on the radio. Braveheart was stirring the hearts of moviegoers, while Twelve Monkeys was scaring the crap out of them. And the book everyone was toting around was Snow Falling on Cedars, by David Guterson. It's been on my personal TBR list for a couple of years, and I finished it the other day.
Snow Falling on Cedars was not really a "traditional" TBR for me. Rather, it was in with a bunch of books my parents asked me to drop off at the library for them. The library closest to them also sells used books donated by patrons, in a separate room off the main floor, with all proceeds going to the library. My father taught social studies and my mother taught English, so I grew up with scads and scads of books in the house. They get rid of more than most people own, and I went through the boxes first to see if there was anything that interested me. Snow Falling on Cedars was one of the ones I grabbed. I knew nothing about it except that I liked the title and that, at one point, it had been one of those books everyone was reading.
I could see why almost immediately. It's set on fictional San Piedro Island, off the coast of Washington state in 1954. It starts with the murder trial of a second-generation Japanese man, accused of killing a white man. At the beginning of the novel, you get little more information than that. It slowly spirals out, back in time to before World War II, when all the principals were young and life was open. The reader slowly learns of the links between the accused and the deceased, and of the doomed teenage relationship between the wife of the accused and a white reporter, and how the war changed them all.
The fictional island had a large Japanese-American community, and the novel deftly explores the relationship between them and the whites, and how the war changed it. During the war, all of the island's Japanese-Americans were rounded up and sent to the Manzanar internment camp. In high school, we had to read another book on this topic called Farewell to Manzanar. Maybe it was because I was a callous 15-year-old, or maybe the book just wasn't very good, but it failed to make much of an impression on me. It could have also been something in the way it was taught, paired with a Nazi concentration camp memoir. Internment didn't sound so bad next to that.
But this book made me "get it" much better. The defendant's family had an under-the-table agreement to purchase land from their employer, and were two payments away from outright ownership when they were interred. Because law prohibited first-generation immigrants owning land at the time, the agreement was under the table. Their employer (the parents of the deceased) sold the land from under them. Also lost to the war, and to the general culture, was the teenaged romance between the defendant's wife Hatsue, and the son of the local newspaper publisher, Ishmael. Hatsue's family wanted her to marry a Japanese man, so she did. Ishmael never got over it.
The scenes where the main characters were forced out of their homes were very moving. Guterson describes an FBI visit to Hatuse's home, where much was made out of innocuous family heirlooms and dangerous but common faming implements and chemicals. He describes the hive of activity between the time the notice for relocation went out and the date of the transport: how the community worked together to round up and secure everyone's furniture, how the Japanese businessmen were selling down to the walls at cut-rate prices and trying to arrange promises from their neighbors to watch over their crops. I'd say that these portions of it are much more moving than Farewell to Manzanar, at least as far as I remember.
But lest anyone mistake it for an "issues" novel, that's only a portion of the story. There's the murder trial, the love lost, and the lush depiction of the fictional island. I was really disappointed to learn that it wasn't a real place, because in the novel, you could practically smell it: the strawberry fields, the heavy vegetation, the rain and the sea. I wanted to visit someday. The peaceful beauty of the title extends to the whole book, even in the more violent war scenes. The book is about a wide range of topics, ultimately all of them human. I'd say it deserves its reputation, and I'm curious about what else Guterson has written.