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Book Review

Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson has been reviewed by Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine.

Positive Elements

Spiritual Content

Sexual Content

Violent Content

Crude or Profane Language

Drug and Alcohol Content

Other Negative Elements

Conclusion

Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

In San Piedro, Washington, in 1954, a fisherman named Carl Heine is discovered drowned and tangled in his own fishing net. An autopsy reveals that Carl sustained a head injury before falling overboard, and the citizens of San Piedro are shocked when local man Kabuo Miyamoto is accused of murdering Carl.

Ishmael Chambers is San Piedro’s only journalist, and he feels conflicted about reporting on Kabuo’s trial, because he is still in love with Kabuo’s wife, Hatsue. Ishmael and Hatsue grew up together and were childhood sweethearts. The story is told through a combination of present-day courtroom scenes and flashbacks to the past.

The murder trial is tense, partially because the accused man is part of San Piedro’s large Japanese-American community. The Japanese and white citizens of the town have always coexisted uncomfortably, especially since the paranoia of the WWII era when the town’s Japanese citizens were taken to internment camps for a couple of years.

This forced internment during WWII becomes a key point in establishing a motive for murder in Kabuo’s trial. Carl’s mother, Etta, reveals that Kabuo’s father had once intended to buy seven acres of strawberry farmland from Carl’s father, Carl Sr. He had made payments to Carl Sr. for years before WWII broke out. Both Kabuo’s father and Carl Sr. died, and when Kabuo returned from the internment camp in 1945 as a young man, Etta informed him that she was returning his money because she had sold the strawberry fields to Ole Jurgensen.

Kabuo felt cheated at that time. He feels frustrated once again in 1954 when he attempts to buy the strawberry fields from Ole Jurgensen, only to find that Carl Heine Jr. has beat him in purchasing it.

In the past, we learn how Hatsue and Ishmael’s young romance ended. When they were 18, Hatsue went to an internment camp, and her mother soon intercepted a love letter sent to her by Ishmael. Hatsue’s mother demanded that Hatsue break off the relationship, but Hatsue was already feeling like their adolescent love wasn’t meant to last. Hatsue sent a letter to Ishmael, breaking up with him. She and Kabuo grew closer in the internment camp and married while still there.

At the murder trial, more evidence against Kabuo is presented. A mooring line similar to the mooring lines from Kabuo’s boat is found on Carl’s boat, suggesting that he boarded Carl’s boat the night Carl died. Also, when the sheriff searched Kabuo’s boat, he found a fishing gaff with blood on the blunt end, which is believed to be the murder weapon. The blood on the gaff is type B, Carl’s blood type, which is uncommon. Kabuo’s former training sergeant from the military testifies that Kabuo was so skilled in combat that he was better than his sergeant, and also mentions that Kabuo could easily kill another person with a blunt object such as a fishing gaff.

The power in the courthouse is knocked out by a winter storm, so they dismiss for a recess. As he drives away from the courthouse, Ishmael notices Hatsue and her father stranded because their car is stuck in the snow. He gives them a ride home, and Hatsue tells him that her husband’s trial is unfair. She wants Ishmael to discuss that unfairness in his newspaper. Ishmael considers writing an article in Kabuo’s defense, just so Hatsue will be grateful to him.

Ishmael goes to the local lighthouse to look through their weather archives so he can report on the current winter storm and compare it to previous storms. The lighthouse guards keep a record of all radio transmissions, and as Ishmael goes through these records, he discovers that on the night of Carl’s death, a giant freighter ship passed near Carl’s boat.

Ishmael knows that a freighter of this size could produce a wake large enough to knock a man off of a small fishing boat. Carl’s watch stopped at 1:47 a.m. and the freighter passed at 1:42 a.m., so the time coincides perfectly. Ishmael decides not to share this information right away, due to his complex feelings for Hatsue.

In a flashback to the early days of Kabuo’s arrest, Kabuo has reluctant conversations with his defense attorney, Nels Gudmundsson, explaining all the strange coincidences in his case. On the night Carl died, Kabuo had discovered Carl’s boat dead in the water. Kabuo tied their boats together and helped Carl replace one of his boat’s batteries. Carl used Kabuo’s fishing gaff to help pound the wrong-size battery into place, and in the process cut his hand, leaving his type-B blood on the blunt end. Carl says that he’s sorry about their prolonged family feud over the seven acres of strawberry fields, and he offers to sell them to Kabuo for a fair price. They shake hands in agreement and part ways.

In the present, the trial concludes and the jury deliberates their verdict. Only one juror believes Kabuo is innocent of first-degree murder. Elsewhere, Ishmael contemplates revealing his piece of evidence about the freighter. He re-reads Hatsue’s breakup letter from 12 years ago, where she says that he’s a good person and will do great things.

Ishmael realizes that he has been small-minded and has failed to live up to Hatsue’s faith in him. He immediately goes to Hatsue’s parents’ house to tell them about the evidence that will exonerate Kabuo. Hatsue thanks Ishmael for his aid, kisses his cheek, and tells him that he should marry, have children and start his own happy life.

The next day, Hatsue and Ishmael go to the sheriff and present him with the radio transcripts about the freighter’s passage. Ishmael and the sheriff go to inspect Carl’s boat. They find new evidence that Carl climbed his boat’s mast, cut down a lantern he’d previously tied there and was knocked off the mast into the water by the freighter’s giant wake. In light of these new discoveries, Kabuo is released.

Christian Beliefs

Most of the citizens of San Piedro attend church. Carl Heine faithfully attended a Lutheran church every week. Witnesses in court swear on a Bible before offering testimony.

When the Japanese citizens of San Piedro are being taken to an internment camp, Carl Heine Sr. entreats his prejudiced wife, Etta, to have some Christian compassion for their neighbors.

Before entering a battle in Word War II, Ishmael’s platoon chaplain leads the men in reciting the 23rd Psalm and singing a hymn. The chaplain asks the men to think about their relationship with Jesus Christ. When one solider calls out that he is an atheist and intends to remain an atheist until death, the chaplain says that he still hopes God blesses the soldier.

Ishmael’s mother, Mrs. Chambers, asks him to say grace over meals, but Ishmael insists that he is an agnostic and isn’t sure if God exists. He says that maybe God chooses some people to feel His presence and others not to feel it. Mrs. Chambers says that Ishmael could feel God’s presence when he was a child.

Other Belief Systems

The Japanese side of town has a Buddhist church. Hatsue and Kabuo are married in a Buddhist chapel. Because Kabuo believes in karma, he thinks he will likely be charged with Carl’s murder. Although he is innocent of Carl’s death, he killed people during World War II, and he feels like he ought to be punished for their deaths.

Authority Roles

As a teenager, Hatsue felt guilty about her relationship with Ishmael because she knew her mother wouldn’t approve. When Mrs. Imada discovers Hatsue’s romance with Ishmael, she demands that Hatsue write a letter and break off the relationship. Hatsue agrees that this is the wisest course of action. Mrs. Imada’s notion of what is best for her daughter turns out to be correct, and Hatsue feels more fulfilled and happy when she is no longer keeping secrets from her mother.

Kabuo’s father, Zenhichi, carefully teaches him the martial art of kendo and also tries to teach him important life lessons.

Ishmael’s mother, Mrs. Chambers, loves her adult son and tries to offer him advice on how to be an objective newspaperman. She also encourages him to seek a relationship with God and to start a family to end his lonely, numb, post-wartime existence.

Profanity/Violence

The name Jesus Christ is taken in vain numerous times. Profanity includes the f-word , god--n, d--n and s---(8). There are also a few mentions of b--ch, b--tard and a--. Also, there is a brief use of the pejorative term Indjun to refer to Native Americans and dozens of uses of the pejorative term Jap to refer to people of Japanese descent

Horace Whaley, the coroner, has examined many dead bodies and graphically recalls the details of several deceased, decomposed bodies. Kabuo remembers shooting a young German soldier during the war and watching the man bleed to death, then void his bowels.

As a solider in World War II, Ishmael witnesses several instances of graphic wartime violence. He hears a gruesome story about a fellow soldier who used a dead Japanese child’s genitals as a target for sharpshooting practice. After Ishmael is badly wounded, he wakes up partway through his arm-amputation surgery and sees his own severed arm lying on the floor near the operating table.

Kissing/Sex/Homosexuality

At age 10, Ishmael and Hatsue share their first kiss. When Hatsue is 13, her etiquette instructor, Mrs. Shigemura, warns her that white men are sexually obsessed with Japanese girls.

At age 14, Ishmael and Hatsue begin a secret romance, which involves regularly sneaking away to kiss inside a hollowed-out tree. After their intense kissing, Ishmael is sometimes so excited that he masturbates on his walk home through the forest.

When Hatsue and Ishmael are 18, they begin to have sex. Immediately after penetration, Hatsue decides that the whole situation feels wrong. She tells Ishmael to stop and he complies with her wishes. Hatsue and Kabuo’s consummation of their marriage is described in detail.

Susan Marie Heine remembers her courtship with her husband, Carl, and how their relationship was primarily physical even from the beginning. Several scenes of their post-marital sex life are described.

Kabuo’s defending attorney, Nels Gudmundsson, thinks about his own past sex life, masturbating and his present impotence at old age. Ishmael recalls having sex with a few different women after the war. Each instance was an unsatisfying short-term relationship.

Discussion Topics

Get free discussion questions for this book and others, at FocusOnTheFamily.com/discuss-books.

Additional Comments/Notes

Racism: White citizens remark that they can’t tell Japanese people apart. Carl doesn’t want to sell land to Kabuo simply because he’s Japanese. Internment camps were set up for Japanese Americans during World War II.

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Book reviews cover the content, themes and worldviews of fiction books, not their literary merit, and equip parents to decide whether a book is appropriate for their children. The inclusion of a book's review does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family.

Episode Reviews

Credits

Rating

Readability Age Range

15 and up

Author

David Guterson

Cast

Director

Distributor

Network

Performance

Record Label

Platform

Publisher

Harcourt Brace, a division of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing

Released

On Video

Year Published

1994

Awards

PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, 1995

Reviewer

We hope this review was both interesting and useful. Please share it with family and friends who would benefit from it as well.

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