Snow Falling on Cedars written by David Guterson, starts out slow, like the town in which they live. You can feel the slowness; the stagnant weather, almost as if they were black and white on film. In many ways I found this novel to be the antithesis of Steinbeck's Cannery Row or Sweet Thursday. Both novels have the same underlining values; societal problems such as prejudice and justice, but told through everyday people with the simplest of lives. The major difference, I found, was that Steinbeck seems to intentionally beautify what you or I might walk right through; what we wouldn't notice in the everyday. Guterson, in stark contrast wishes to bring out the ugly, even at times grotesque, in the everyday.
The language is cold, like the snow falling against the window clinging there until it can no longer hold and falls to its end, like a man gripping, nails bleeding to a window ledge. Guterson clearly has a major talent; he brings you into a town you don't want to go. You do not wish to feel that cold, to fish on that boat, to live in the aftermath of World War II in a small fishing village off the Seattle coast, but you have no choice. For once you begin this novel you WILL be taken there against your will. You will be with the Japanese as they work in their farms and later when they are taken against their will to the internment camps and again when they return to lack of land and cold looks. You are with the San Piedro native fishermen and farmers broken to begin with and amputated when they return from the war.
This is a tale that shows no mercy, though there are no bloody scenes, this novel would not be rated R. It is read in the feeling of the words, not the words themselves. I wish to describe the town as dreadful or awful, but that's not quite it. The best word to describe the book and the characters themselves is cold, and I find the title most appropriate. I do not mean to say that this is not a good book; the goodness lies in the depression. The genius is the chill you get when there is a snowstorm which virtually follows you through the entire novel; this is no fairytale. There is little justice here.
The novel follows a court case, but I believe although this was the center of the novel, it could have been eliminated and the book would still be valid and true and important. At first glance one may say it would not have been a book without the case and all the characters surrounding it, but I would urge that the real story is outside this case. In the end, the innocent man was set free, but it is not a happy ending, Sleeping Beauty wakes only to flutter back to sleep. The man accused is a Japanese man whose father paid for many acres of strawberry land, but does not pay the very last payment before taken to the internment camp. The land is sold to someone else and the accused man is arrested for killing the current owner of his family's land. He is innocent, however. On the night of the "murder" both men are fishing late at night. The owner of the land is drifting in the sea with a dead battery when the accused man comes upon him and lends him his spare. During that night, the land owner finally agrees that he will sell his family's land back to him. Only moments later a cargo ship goes by sending a wave over the land owner’s boat, throwing him overboard and killing him. You are happy that the innocent man is free, but you are not satisfied. Still no land. Still no justice even amidst the justice. Is that possible?
Guterson does not find the beauty in life; he finds only life. He writes of truth as it really is, cold, frozen in time for this trial. Maybe this trial is a metaphor, a representation of waiting in a dreary part of history; waiting for beauty; for spring. There are few places in this town that the reader feels warmth. A fire is built by the local reporter's mother; she might belong in a Steinbeck novel. She is nothing amazing, she is an average widow, but she does not wallow. She is peaceful in the rituals, though her rituals may be seen as boring. She is a woman of God, but nobody agrees with her and she doesn't mind.
There are so many interesting questions to think about in this novel: what is justice? Forgiveness? Love? Contentment? Honor? Knowledge? It may be cold here in San Piedro, the spray of the sea stings your eyes, the electricity is out, your car may drift in the snow, the beds are not comfortable and the coffee is instant, but you will nevertheless sit in the stands as one of the jurors and you will watch and you will be captivated in the cold.