And when I say pulling, I mean coaxing and cajoling, enthralling and enthusing, to the point where the line between reality and fiction becomes seriously blurred.
The best reading experiences come when all around us life goes on, but we pay scant attention. Dishes need to be washed. Cat boxes need changing. There’s a strange smell coming from the refrigerator. Yet we keep reading, wanting to get to the end even as we dread the moment when we’ll arrive and then be forced to re-emerge into our real lives like free divers suffering from the bends.
David Guterson’s 1994 novel “Snow Falling on Cedars” is such a book. Which, of course, is why it’s the September selection of The Spokesman-Review Book Club.
Not that Guterson’s book is a work of complete imagination. Set in 1954, it captures post-World War II America in all its complexity, imbuing it with a specific Pacific Northwest feel. Central to the plot is the real-life war-time evacuation of some 110,000 Japanese-Americans into so-called “internment camps.” Many of those interned lost everything — jobs, homes and, in some cases, even their lives.
Guterson uses that shameful chapter in American history as the backdrop for his novel, which takes place on fictional San Piedro Island, a remote spot situated in the northern part of Puget Sound. We’re thrown immediately into a situation: A white fisherman is found dead, drowned but with a serious, and suspicious, gash on his forehead. Based on circumstantial evidence, a Japanese fisherman — the dead man’s childhood friend — is arrested for murder. Everything that happens subsequently is built around the ensuing trial.
Only gradually does the truth emerge. But emerge it does. And not only is the mystery behind the death revealed, but so is a hidden chapter of the island’s history. Guterson switches back and forth in time to expose the timid way most of the island’s residents reacted when their Japanese neighbors were taken away. Some even profited from the situation.
In an ordinary novel, this would be enough. But Guterson gives us also a love story, one that takes place between the novel’s actual protagonist, the newspaper editor Ishmael Chambers, and the accused murderer’s wife, Hatsue. As children, the two had hidden their mutual affection, sneaking off to be with one another in violation of mores set up by their native cultures.
Hatsue eventually submits to her family’s strict dictates and breaks things off with Ishmael, leading him to the point where — burdened further by memories of his war experiences, which cost him an arm — he has to resolve his central contradiction: give in to his bitterness, or become the man of conscience he is by nature and do the right thing.
We even get to know the dead man, Carl Heine, who returned from war-time service in the Pacific with harsh feelings toward the Japanese. His relationship with his one-time friend, Kabuo Miyamoto, is particularly affected. Miyamoto also is a war veteran, having served in Europe, and he is dealing with demons of his own. The irony is that Miyamoto’s own service record makes him the perfect murder suspect.
The strength of “Snow Falling on Cedars” is that it does these several things at once, and it does them well. And besides being portrayed in Guterson’s poetic prose style, they are presented in a balanced manner because Guterson wants us not to get caught up in the romance nor the trial but, instead, consider what keeps people going after having suffered unspeakable horrors.
As Guterson told the Web site iVillage.com, he wants “primarily to explore and consider a basic philosophical question about the human condition. In a universe so indifferent to our fate, how best to endure, to go on?”
Big issues are important to Guterson. A Seattle native, Guterson was born in 1957 the son of a respected criminal defense lawyer. He received his master’s in creative writing from the University of Washington. Charles Johnson, a 1990 National Book Award winner for his novel “Middle Passage,” and others instilled in Guterson the notion that writing should tackle ethical quandaries.
“Fiction writers shouldn't dictate to people what their morality should be,” he told one interviewer. “Yet not enough writers are presenting moral questions for reflection, which I think is a very important obligation.”
Whatever Guterson’s attempt, the critics loved the results.
The New York Times Book Review: “Finely wrought, flawlessly written”
Time magazine: “(A) beautifully assured and full-bodied novel (that) becomes a tender examination of fairness and forgiveness.”
The Los Angeles Times: “A whodunit complete with courtroom maneuvering and surprising turns of evidence and at the same time a mystery, something altogether richer and deeper.”
Kirkus Reviews: “Packed with lovely moments and as compact as haiku — at the same time, a page-turner full of twists.”
A resident of Bainbridge Island (in Puget Sound), where he once taught high school English, Guterson has written a short-story collection, “The Country Ahead of Us, the Country Behind” and the nonfiction book “Family Matters: Why Homeschooling Makes Sense.”
Besides “Snow Falling on Cedars,” which won the 1995 PEN/Faulkner Award, he has written the novels “East of the Mountains” and “Our Lady of the Forest.” And he writes regularly for magazines such as Sports Illustrated and Harper’s.
But whatever other success Guterson enjoy, it’s likely that “Snow Falling on Cedars” is the book for which he will be remembered. And that’s no shabby thing, especially for guy who works so hard at pulling us into his narrative.
“I’m interested in themes that endure from generation to generation,” Guterson told BookPage magazine. “Fiction is socially meaningful. Every culture is sustained by certain cultural myths. At its heart, fiction’s role is to see those roles and myths sustained.”