Aggressive Regionalism: Commentary

16. David Guterson, Snow Falling on Cedars

By the 1990s, a half a century after World War II, what happened in the wartime American West to people of Japanese descent had become so well known that it played a central role in the appeal of the best-selling first novel by David Guterson. Snow Falling on Cedars revolves in large part around the treatment of people of Japanese descent in the Pacific Northwest during the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. The plot unfolds as a mystery in a 1954 courtroom murder trial on “San Piedro Island” in Puget Sound. The defendant, Kabuo Miyamoto, stands accused of killing Carl Heine because of a real-estate deal gone awry. The deal dates back to the time just before Pearl Harbor, when Issei had been forbidden from owning property. War intervened to upset the deal and undermine trust between different groups of island residents, including not only people of Japanese descent (including Miyamoto) and of German descent (including Heine) but practically everyone else as well. Much of the story emerges through the eyes of a newspaperman named Ishmael Chambers, who himself lost to the war not only his Nisei girlfriend (now Miyamoto’s wife) but also his left arm, amputated after a battle at Tarawa in the Pacific Theater. Snow Falling on Cedars is about the lengthy process of people putting themselves and their society back together after war.

One thing that distinguishes Guterson’s work from those of Sone and Okada is the elaborate attention he gives to the natural setting. By the 1990s paying close attention to the environment was practically expected of any writer receiving the regional label. Populated by fishing and farm families, Snow Falling on Cedars acknowledges throughout the fecundity of sea, land, and, to some extent, humans. The scene included here, for example, tells about an annual festival celebrating the strawberry harvest and featuring “a virginal Japanese maiden” as the Strawberry Princess.  Even the cedars in the title attest to the evergreen fertility of the place.  Another central aspect of the natural setting is that the action occurs on an island.  San Piedro appears to be a composite created from the San Juan Islands, Whidbey Island, and Guterson’s own Bainbridge Island—all within Puget Sound. San Piedro becomes a metaphor for the larger world. Toward the end of the story Ishmael remembers his father’s advice about living in such finite space: 

he’d recognized limits and the grayness of the world, which is what endeared him to island life, limited as it was by surrounding waters, which imposed upon islanders certain duties and conditions foreign to mainlanders. An enemy on an island is an enemy forever, he’d been fond of reminding his son. There was no blending into an anonymous background, no neighboring society to shift toward. Islanders were required, by the very nature of their landscape, to watch their step moment by moment. No one trod easily upon the emotions of another where the sea licked everywhere against an endless shoreline (Guterson 1995: 439).

Using the momentum of the courtroom scenes, Guterson propels readers adeptly between the 1950s (the time of the death and trial), the 1940s (wartime), and the 1930s (when the different groups on the island coexisted relatively amicably). His success stems as well from attention to historical detail. Unlike Monica Sone and John Okada, Guterson did not live during the decades about which he wrote, but he undertook substantial research in order to get the particulars right. Consequently, his fine-grain depictions of fishing boats and internment camps and battlefield conditions have a great deal of power. Guterson’s familiarity with Bainbridge Island’s past also helped. The island’s Nikkei were among the very first to be sent to internment camps in 1942. Moreover, the Bainbridge Island Review was one of those very rare western newspapers that actually criticized the government’s policy and practice of incarcerating people of Japanese descent. For these reasons in part, the story of the relocation of Bainbridge Island Nikkei is relatively well documented, and Guterson made effective use of the evidence—maybe too effective. When he has Ishmael’s father publish an editorial urging tolerance of people of Japanese descent in the fictional San Piedro Review of December 8, 1941, the words come directly from the column by Walt and Millie Woodward in the actual Bainbridge Island Review of the same date.

Guterson earned a degree in the creative writing program in the Department of English at the University of Washington, and taught high school on Bainbridge Island. His other publications include a book of short stories (The Country Ahead of Us, the Country Behind), a second novel (East of the Mountains), a book on home schooling (Family Matters), and a third novel, Lady of the Forest.

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