Snow Falling on Cedars (the book) is a story exposing the nature of human existence, encapsulated in a story about the apparent murder of Carl Heine. The mystery quickly becomes irrelevent and the question of how humankind will stand up to such a test as this becomes the focus of the novel. Key themes and issues are raised through the characters and the events of the story, issues that feature prominently in the conflicts and problems of 90's society. Heavy layered symbolism reinforces the characters themselves, and their environments and situations reinforce the symbolism. The crime forces people to reveal their true characters when they are tested about their procedures and morals in front of the court and the reader, where their actions are suddenly important and justice may rely upon them.
The time setting of the novel, the 50’s, not only highlights areas of the era that we now know to have been problems, such as nationalism, but it demonstrates how many of the problems that we criticise of that era remain today in subverted forms. The separation and seclusion of cultures continues to play upon the minds of grandparents wanting to immortalise their views by instilling them in the minds of their grandchildren, as is performed upon Hatsue. Effects of war not only continue to affect us today, but also are now poorly understood by today’s youth, all of which continues to harbour belief’s that the lessons from such events have not been learnt. Also achieved by the 50’s setting Guterson is able to show that the human condition is unchanging, that ´accident ruled every corner of the universe except the chambers of the human heart’. By teaching us what has changed about people, he teaches us what hasn’t changed and will never change but how we as individuals can influence the group for the better despite such flaws.
San Pedro is a small island community just large enough to be almost entirely self-contained. It has at least one member representing groups that would be found in larger cities allowing it to operate as model of the larger communities. In this way the Sheriff and the Deputy represent the problems and difficulties of both the experienced and inexperienced police force respectively in a much larger city, and thus express Gutersons concerns of both 1950’s and 1990’s society. It is through the investigation methods of the sheriff Art, and his deputy Abel, that we see realistic errors in policing that can lead to injustices. Abel picks up a coffee cup, cleaning the crime scene as though it were his own house, which changes the evidence. Art “began to manipulate the radio dials for no other reason than that he didn’t know what else to do”, however he didn’t note the frequency the dials were left on which could have provided a significant clue. His early desperation serves to illustrate how he approaches each case looking to enter the scene and like Sherlock Holmes solve the crime instantly, without the painful pondering and re-examining that should be an accepted part of policing. Art opens the book by showing how far we are from literary ideals and thus setting up the book as a realistic examination of the books themes.
Horace represents the importance of objectivity among those in which a high administrative responsibility is held. The bias he puts on his work, caused from prejudices that have built up over the war, were a major contributing factor into why Art began looking for someone Japanese. He also bears feelings of superiority because of his position on the island, to the extent that he feels able to taunt Art about what he can and can’t do, “You want to play Sherlock Holmes?”. Guterson is raising the question why do people who are intelligent and educated take on feelings of supremacy over others and how does it affect their work.
People on the island have chosen to go there to escape the often harsh and secluded nature of a big city, but the small group of people ends up forming into even smaller groups that grow increasingly different and distant from one another. The Anglo-Saxons are resilient in accepting other cultures of intermixing of the people because of feelings of racial superiority, while the Germans, who we see represented by the Heine family, are determined to raise themselves above the outsider status of the Japanese by publicly putting them down or showing their own feelings of superiority to them. The Japanese have formed their own island within an island community with their separate line of shops and baseball facilities. The Japanese and the Anglo-Saxons play baseball together in an act of group competition rather than friendly mixing (but nevertheless a significant sign of hope).
During the wartime the people on San Pedro, who already bonded with one another sharing ‘isolation’, were further banded by the crisis they all had to deal with. They collected together to fight the war, and like a tribe they looked after their own and the Japanese were thought of as the enemy. While the war was going on, they were bombarded with propaganda and told to think of the Japanese as people who wanted to take away their liberty. When the war ended this idea of the Japanese as invaders did not stop, people’s opinions of the Japanese were transformed so that they began to think of the Japanese not as people to share their content with but instead harboured irrational fears that they wanted to harm them or their country. Of those who went to war, being under fire by Japanese troops, having the group they had just bonded with, their fellow soldiers, fall to Japanese bullets caused psychological harm and they were unable to see objectively that they were doing exactly what the Japanese were doing, fighting for their country, instead they can only see people who want to hurt their group. This causes them to register all the pain and hurt that was done to them in the war as being caused by Japanese people, “They hate anyone who looks like the soldiers they fought”. Guterson emphasizes this through Carl and Kabou’s friendship being destroyed by the war, as with Ishmael and Hatsue’s love.
Ishmael and Hatsue’s forbidden love demonstrates how young idealism and love, believed by some to be the most powerful of forces, can be crushed by nationalism and the need to fit in amongst one’s group. Hatsue, although clearly having strong feelings with Ishmael, is unable to express herself to him or overcome cultural difficulties because the longing to be what her parents want and to be one of her kind overpowers everything. Although she can see that he is a good person she holds herself back from him because of the difficulties it will cause if they publicly declare their love. She is unable to see him as anything other than Hakujin, and this distorts her picture of Ishmael. She can only see him as part of the white men who are “dangerous egomaniacs and utterly convinced that Japanese women worshiped them for their pale skin and for their ambitious courage”. Ishmael foolishly believes that Hatsue and him can overcome such difficulties, and that she will respect him for his open courage that Japanese men do not display. He misunderstands Hatsue’s culture and believes that because he can talk to her she is different. It is ultimately both Hatsue and Ishmael’s lack of confidence in themselves that causes them to fall inline with the misunderstandings of their separate forefathers and if they had had the strength to stand upon their own convictions they could have built something special together.
It can be said that the Asian hate that has developed on the island is a backlash to previously held views that Asians were harmless, weak people who wouldn’t achieve anything. When American’s found themselves under attack they felt as though their generosity and charity towards them had been abused, that they were taking advantage of it by attacking them. Their views swung in the other direction and they began to irrationally fear Asian people, as is evident by Sergeant Maples, “a man both technically proficient in stick fighting and willing to inflict violence on another man”. His view is not unique; Guterson’s observation is that people fear others irrationally when they come from a different culture, for they believe that it is only through their culture that they can trust one another (Note: This is known as out-group bias). He believes we should be bound together because we are all human, not because we come from the same culture, and that our fears are dominating us and making us hurt one another because they are left uncontrolled.
Ultimately, it is the characters that lead the observations of Guterson. All characters have been included for the comment they can provide about society. Susan Marie details how Carl and her shared very little except their sex life together. That Carl didn’t talk about the war with her became the crux of the relationship, it meant that they rarely communicated other things with one another. Carl died largely unknown by anyone; he kept very much to himself and was numbed by the war as Ishmaels mother accuses Ishmael of being. Refraining from expressing themselves about the war ultimately servers as an Achilles' heel for Ishmael, Carl and Kabou, their memories serve as a weight upon their mind, hurt to them which can only be healed when they tell someone about it. Guterson is making a gender as well as an overall human comment here, that the majority of our problems with other people stem from misunderstandings or miscommunications, that we have to tell people how we feel or it will forever hold us back.
Symbolism also plays an important part in portraying Guterson’s questions about society. Snow, human evilness, lathers itself over the cedars, the human heart, as the story progresses. Ishmael and Hatsue huddle inside the cedar, the only place they are able to express their love is the only region of themselves they control, their own hearts. The water, symbolic of danger and uncertainty, provides only an income for Kabou and Carl. Strawberry fields are openness and hard work, smelling sweet and tasting sweeter, they are something to aspire towards. Guterson comments on the hopeless nature of fighting against the elements, employing the ‘nature finds a way’ philosophy. The elements come down hardest when human evilness is at work, and when they try and ignore the elements such as driving in the snow, they often crash. Mother nature favours justice and humans being human to one another, preventing the trial with the storm.
Snow Falling on Cedars focuses very loosely around the solving of the mystery of Carl Heine, but in reality it is more like it’s inspiration ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ in that it uses the story as a vehicle for a book that we can use to better ourselves. Through each character we learn a different yet important life lesson, and through the symbolism the themes come through with greater clarity. At the end of the book we understand what it means to be in this society, and we can concentrate on bettering the one place we will always have control over, the chambers of our own heart.