Difficult Choices in David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars
It is mid 1950’s in predominantly white populated San Piedro Island. One of its residents has been murdered and another stands accused of the crime. From the first chapter and through the use of flashbacks, David Guterson makes us aware of the racism that exists in the small, West Coast island of San Piedro. The victim, Carl Heine, is of European descent; the accused man, Kabuo Miyamoto, is of Japanese ancestry. There also is a small community of Japanese residents on San Piedro Island. David Guterson’s novel Snow Falling on Cedars includes themes about love and war, but none is more central than racism and prejudice as a choice of the heart and mind of the individual. The collection of characters, complex or flat, that Guterson presents sets the tension and focuses the issue of individual choice.
The trial is in its opening stages but already the reader can experience the racial tension in the atmosphere. Confirmation of this fact is provided by the sitting arrangement of the twenty-four islanders of Japanese ancestry in Judge Lew Fielding’s courtroom: “No law compelled them to take only these rear seats. They had done so instead because San Piedro required it of them without calling it a law” (75).
Residents from San Piedro Island are not tolerant of the racial differences that existed between the Japanese residents and the rest of the community. These feelings had been increased by the order to intern Japanese persons under the assumption of military necessity during World War II. Guterson makes this clear when he writes: “Suckers all look alike. Never could tell them guys apart” (43). These words, uttered by fisherman Dale Middleton when questioned by sheriff Moran, give a clear indication of how San Piedro islanders view their Japanese neighbors: as suckers and as being all alike. Islanders do not have any desire to acquire a better understanding of the Japanese residents and their culture. This fact is very important when we consider that Kabuo’s personality is bringing him closer to a guilty verdict, not because of guilt, but because of overall ignorance and prejudice.
Guterson exploits racism and prejudice as a choice by presenting the reader with characters that are influenced by it. The victim had been a friend of the accused during childhood, yet they are portrayed as prejudiced at some point after the war. We see this during Kabuo’s summation of the events. Carl says “I was out at sea, fighting you goddamn Japs sons a--” to which Kabuo replies, “I killed men who looked just like you-pig fed German bastards…. So don’t you talk to me about Japs, you big Nazi son of a bitch” (404). They had both been to war and it seems that this event has torn apart their ability to be fair.
The characterization of Etta Heine is one of extreme hatred. Her character is presented as a flat individual consumed by racism. This is evident when Etta is called to testify during...