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Justice Denied Review

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 revenge.

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 to Manzanar.

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 world.

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.

©Justice: Denied

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