Snow Falling on Cedars
By David Guterson, Vintage, NY, 1995, 460 pages
Movie version released to theaters in 1998, now available on video.
Starring: Max von Sydow, Ethan Hawke, Sam Shepard
Directed by: Scott Hicks
Produced by: Kathleen Kennedy, Frank Marshall, Harry J. Ufland, and Ron Bass.
Screenplay by: Ron Bass and Scott Hicks
Web site: www.snowfallingoncedars.com
Review by Hans Sherrer
Snow Falling on Cedars is one of those rare works of fiction that conveys
some of the enduring truths of life with a clarity that only the most astute
and skillful of authors has the capability of creating. The
author, David Guterson, does this in telling the story revolving around the
unrequited love of a white man in his early thirties, Ishmael Chambers, for a
woman he has known and loved since they were children.
Hatsue, the woman, and her husband are
Japanese-Americans living in Washington state on the same island as Ishmael
in the San Juan islands. Ishmael publishes the local newspaper and as the
book begins he is covering the trial of Hatsue's husband, Kabuo, for the
murder of a fellow fisherman. The dead fisherman owned 7 acres that Kabuo and
his relatives thought was stolen from them by the land's
previous owner while they were imprisoned during WWII at the Manzanar
concentration camp in California's Mojave desert.
Set in the winter of 1954, the story has an ethereal quality; while the time
span from the first to the last page is only the few days of Kabuo's trial,
events in the lives of Ishmael, Hatsue and Kabuo during the previous 25 years
are interwoven into the unfolding courtroom drama.
Mimicking real life, those events seemed to occur with the lackadaisical
randomness of snow falling on cedar trees that covered the island.
The ethnic differences between Ishmael and Hatsue, the Japanese bombing of
Pearl Harbor when Ishmael and Hatsue were 18 years old, the ensuing marriage
of Hatsue and Kabuo while captives at Manzanar, Ishmael's enduring bitterness
at the loss of an arm to a Japanese sniper's bullet while fighting on Tarawa,
and the dispute over the 7 acres are all random events that coalesce when
Kabuo is charged with murdering the fisherman on a foggy night as an act of
On the surface the circumstantial evidence against Kabuo makes him appear
guilty. He insists, however, that he is innocent and refuses to plea
bargain, After his trial, he is saved from being convicted by the jury after
their first ballot by one juror who thought Kabuo deserved a discussion by
the jury of the "evidence" against him.
The seeming randomness of the jury's delay in convicting Kabuo gave Ishmael
more time to consider what he knew: Kabuo not only did not
kill the fisherman, but he actually helped him when his boat was in distress
on the night he died. Ishmael accidentally discovered the proof of Kabuo's
innocence while researching an unrelated news story during the trial. While
the jury is deliberating, Ishmael holds the fate of the woman he loves and
wants in his hands. So he has to rise above the happenstance of the events
cascading around him and make the moral decision of whether he loves
Hatsue enough to reveal the truth and save her innocent husband from the
tragedy of a lifetime of imprisonment or possibly being executed. He knows that doing that would mean giving up his forlorn hope of
marrying her and re-experiencing the way he felt with her before she was sent
The undercurrent of prejudice against Kabuo's ethnicity, his mistaken
identification by the police as a murderer, and his prosecution by a district
attorney who resisted recognizing the proof is his innocence is not a figment
of Mr. Guterson's imagination as a writer. Quite to the contrary, it is a
variation of innumerable real-life cases of wrongful prosecutions that are
regularly reported on the pages of newspapers and magazines throughout the
Neither is it unusual that Ishmael discovered the evidence establishing
Kabuo's innocence. Most innocent people are vindicated by people outside the
law enforcement loop of police, medical examiners, crime lab technicians and
prosecutors who are predisposed to being blind to information that undermines
their beliefs in someone's guilt. Unfortunately, few judges are as fair as
the one presiding over Kabuo's trial.
The melancholy mood, deliberate pace, and the undercurrent of emotions and
ethical issues in Snow Falling on Cedars are faithfully conveyed in the
film version released to theaters in 1998. So if you don't want to read the
book, renting the movie might be a good choice if you're in the mood to see a
well-told tale of the complexities of life and how our choices can sometimes
trump the chance that seems to dominate so much of life.