Book Essay - Spring 2014

Looking Back, Warily, But With Affection

Snow Falling on Cedars at 20

By David Guterson | March 11, 2014
Ethan Hawke in the 1999 film Snow Falling on Cedars (Mary Evans/Universal Pictures/Everett Collection)

 

Memory is its own reality and bears a tenuous relation to the past. I can say with confidence that I began writing Snow Falling on Cedars during my first few years as a high school English teacher, but after that its origins are, in my mind, nebulous. I have a box full of yellowing, scrawled notes and some writerly journal entries, but nothing there looks definitive or trustworthy. Now and then I can retrieve an image—like the booth of blankets I tacked up around my desk (the better to keep in a space heater’s heat), or the three-inch display on my word processor (across which truncated phrases flitted)—but these are mostly ephemera of the sort that is subject, like memory, to serial revision and the inroads of spontaneous fabrication. In short, I have a problem with reality when it comes to having written Snow Falling on Cedars.

What do I recall, even tentatively or provisionally, beyond certain moments that, after 25 or 30 years, seem real, unreal, and both? The past is imagined and multiplied in memory to the point of a receding zero. Still, I’m not divested yet of odd associations, of hues, tones, colorations, moods, vestiges of my interior landscapes, or intimations of thought and feeling that seem, at least, bound to Snow Falling on Cedars, and from which I can make some inferences about myself when I was under 30. That up-and-comer was tight with ambition. His cup ran over with self-belief. He suffered a ferocious surfeit of romanticism. He imagined writing to be his religious calling, himself a monk.

To put all of this another way, I’m a white middle-class American male whose sense of destiny informed his every youthful breath. In college, at the library, I had no time for elevators—it was so much faster to bound up the stairs. Mania and heroism, in equal measures, spurred me. There I was, too determined to be stopped, indefatigable, filled with the right stuff, and girded by moral striving. In short, I could, and would, save the world, and this I would accomplish by writing things, beginning—in my 20s—with Snow Falling on Cedars. Whether you call that an ethos, a sensibility, a temperament, or a bona fide clinical neurosis, it’s evident in the novel, in its characters and plot, and in an atmosphere that, while languid, still feels like a pressure cooker, one slowly building up the steam of moral force on every page.

But naturally. As a child I’d been fed on, trained toward, and steeped in morality of the liberal American variety, both at school and at home. This pervasive inculcation met up with my forays as a budding writer in a merger strengthened in 1978, when John Gardner’s On Moral Fiction appeared in bookstores and immediately offended nearly everyone but me. Gardner I understood as right about the innovators who’d risen to the top of American letters (Gass, Barthelme, Barth, and Pynchon, to name four of his more prominent targets), where they were busy bamboozling most of my contemporaries and mesmerizing plenty of critics. Like Gardner, I sided pompously with Homer and Dante in the war against structuralists, formalists, and nihilists. I was also (along with legions of my contemporaries) partial to Raymond Carver, whose stories hit me with the force of vindication, offering as they did an antidote to—pick your muddled term—postmodernism, anti-fiction, intertextuality, metafiction. Carver’s allegiance to convention seemed ascendant, and his minimalism seemed ascendant, too, when matched head to head against the precious elaborations and rarefied gimmickry of the era’s avant-garde. Even better was Carver’s dirty realism, because it was so easy to romanticize.

The impulse of my romanticism, though, was immaculate and pastoral. I’d passed my youth in a city, Seattle, but nevertheless—or maybe because of that—I was ecstatic when it came to mountains and forests, and in my fantasies (informed by Helen and Scott Nearing’s Living the Good Life, the era’s bible of American back-to-the-earth living) I looked forward to rural and rustic simplicities. In “the country” I would live beyond the reach of the military-industrial complex and of corporate capitalism: in other words, in territory consistent with my purity. An avid and dream-borne, politicized projectionist, I imagined I might survive apocalypse by dint of my own good handiwork. Ironic, then, that somewhere along the way, I washed up on the shores of Bainbridge Island (today trendy and increasingly posh), 35 minutes by ferry from Seattle and 30 by car from a Trident submarine base. This happened because I’d blown my wad, earned working summers for the Forest Service, on a European romp in a Volkswagen van (so much for my moral presumption), and now had to resort to squatting in a trailer owned by friends. I lit their wood stove, hoed up a garden, slept on a mattress thrown on the floor, and went to town in a ’67 Travelall. None of that seemed like dirty realism. It seemed, instead, like magical realism, because the island’s woods, fields, and beaches were, for me, infused with rural mystery. This, too, haunts Snow Falling on Cedars, with its layer on layer of natural description, its interest in weather and in all things yeoman, in tackle and trim, in agriculture, and in the mores and manner of “humble” island people—most of it viewed and written through the gloss of a city boy’s flirtation with salt-of-the-earth living. Newly ashore on a green and wet island, I preferred ideas to reality, saw icons where there were human beings, gravitated toward scenes confirming my assumptions, and translated the world according to my bent—that is, as an urban voyeur who’d moved to Mayberry-of-the-Pacific. All of this found its way into the novel, which lends it, I think—and for better or worse—a kind of gravitas.

Until recently, and technically speaking, I hadn’t even read Snow Falling on Cedars. After all, where is the line of demarcation between writing a book and reading it? Before publication I read truncated versions, alternate versions, revisions of revisions, multiple iterations, manuscripts marked by friends, relatives, and an editor, manuscripts with marginalia scrawled by the experts I would later name in my acknowledgments, galleys with queries from a copy editor, and galleys scoured and flagged by a proofreader, such that by the time the story became a book, I was done with it. This aversion to revisiting pages with which I was already too well-acquainted went on until recently, when I took a Vintage edition off the shelf. There was the thoroughly familiar cover depicting trees, water, and mist, in the upper right corner a gold decal identifying the novel as “The Award-Winning #1 Bestseller,” and in the lower left corner a quote from The New York Times: “compelling … heart-stopping. Finely wrought, flawlessly written.” In heft it was neither daunting nor lightweight. It looked sort of “literary,” but not too literary. On the back I was told that it had won the PEN/Faulkner Award and the American Booksellers Association Book of the Year Award—code, I think, for a crossover novel, one with dual cachet, both serious and commercial. Reading the teasers, pulled quotes, and praise, I felt, in preponderance, distance, dispassion. These matters, the cover and the acclaim, the awards and sales—these were someone else’s business; mine started after the copyright declarations, where I’d dedicated the novel to my mother and father. About that I had no regrets, and my acknowledgments, too, read benignly enough, but why had I chosen this particular epigram, the well-worn opening of The Divine Comedy?

In the middle of the journey of our life I came to myself
within a dark wood where the straight way was lost.
Ah, how hard a thing it is to tell what a wild,
and rough, and stubborn wood this was,
which in my thought renews the fear!

In retrospect this seems more appropriate to a confessional midlife crisis tale—told at personal expense and with hard-won insight by an older but wiser first-person narrator—than to a courtroom drama long on atmosphere. Maybe I’d sensed something amiss with my choice, but instead of deleting I hedged my bets by adding a second epigram—“Harmony, like a following breeze at sea, is the exception,” from Harvey Oxenhorn’s Tuning the Rig. That sounds, now, better than the Dante, given its pithy and mellifluous directness, the maritime ambience of the novel ahead, and, most important of all, its thematic resonance. I wish I’d gone solely with the Oxenhorn.


For years I could utter the first line of Snow Falling on Cedars from memory. This happened not because I intended to memorize it but by osmosis during multiple readings. How many times did I go back to the beginning and read my way forward to where I’d left off, in the name of writerly immersion? The accused man, Kabuo Miyomoto, sat proudly upright with a rigid grace, his palms placed softly on the defendant’s table—the posture of a man who has detached himself insofar as this is possible at his own trial. I don’t remember where I found “Kabuo,” which I learned, too late, seemed wrong to people who knew Japanese. I knew, or thought I knew, that this name meant “pumpkin man,” which must have put me in mind of a jack-o’-lantern’s frozen, immobile face. Pursuing the matter just now with a search engine, I got 10 pages in before I found Kabuos who weren’t the Kabuo of Snow Falling on Cedars—first as the surname of a woman in Texas, second as the surname of a woman in Congo, and third as the pseudonym of an online poker player. I also discovered that kabuo means, in Japanese, a turnip, specifically—I hadn’t known turnips could be sorted by gender—a male turnip. Next I tried an audio translator, which gave me back, when I entered “turnip,” what sounded to me like “kahbuht.” (The parties responsible for the movie adaptation, having done more homework than I, changed Kabuo to Kazuo, a common Japanese name with multiple meanings, including—I see the irony in this—“harmonious or peaceful man.”)

So there sat the male turnip, upright, detached, which is to say, embodying a stereotype. I must have been thoroughly conscious of this, because Snow Falling on Cedars, as a personal experience, was concurrent with my decade as a public school English teacher engaged in curricular culture wars. Like my colleagues, I had a heightened awareness of tomes and lines that were politically incorrect, and could ferret them out even when they needed nudging to qualify. If, at a hypothetical department meeting, we’d convened to wrangle over Kabuo’s detachment, I might certainly have argued for throwing this book on the trash heap of injurious white male literature, but not before, probably haplessly, pleading for the benefit of the doubt.

Iconic novels written by white Americans in the arena of race, fairness, and prejudice are appropriately subject to close scrutiny. In some it’s as if a blind person is asking us to see. Twain, for example, in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, offers a Jim who seems, more than sometimes, like a stock character from a minstrel show, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, is a font of pernicious stereotypes. In Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, black people rely, very humbly, on a white hero to move forward, since they are utterly incapable of action themselves—this after the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the long walk of the Little Rock Nine. But coming to the point: the author of Snow Falling on Cedars is guilty, too, of pursuing good intentions while wearing weak glasses. At times my novel takes an interest in the insidious, interior operations of stereotypes—in the ways they are deployed, with complexity, by their victims—but elsewhere it suffers from insufficiencies of perception of the sort that white Americans, if they struggle with them at all, must struggle with lifelong.

By now a few thousand student papers have been launched toward weary high school English teachers on the parallels between To Kill a Mockingbird and Snow Falling on Cedars. It’s a comparison that abounds elsewhere too, and one abetted by me. Harold Bloom—who like a colossus bestrode the world of late-20th-century American literary criticism—is apt in his description of both novels as “humane Period Pieces” and as defenses “of human rights in an America where such rights continue to be thwarted.” He isn’t, though, a great fan of either, and in his Bloom’s Guide to Snow Falling on Cedars bades me listen to the Player King in Hamlet’s The Mousetrap, who “ends his great speech with a dark wisdom that Guterson might ponder”:

Our wills and fates do so contrary run
That our devices still are overthrown,
Our thoughts are ours, their ends none of our own.

Duly chastened, I have been pondering this, as well as Bloom’s questions about my novel’s ending: “Does the heart’s will exclude accident?” and, “Are our deepest desires so over-determined that character becomes fate?” Freud, Bloom tells us, thought these desires so, “and wanted to believe that there are no accidents, but as a wise sage he knew better. Shakespeare,” he adds, “far wiser” than Freud, “created Hamlet, who understood the truth of our condition, and died of the truth.”

This is the kind of raw material that leaves students sweating to make sense of it. Do our wills and fates indeed run contrary? Is it true that our thoughts are ours, their ends otherwise? Does the heart’s will exclude accident? What truth of our condition did Hamlet understand—and die from? Is character, as Heraclitus wrote, fate? (Actually, he wrote ethos anthropos daimon, which roughly translates as “a man’s ethos is his demon.”) In Snow Falling on Cedars, readers hear that “The heart of any other, because it had a will,” remains “forever mysterious,” and that accident rules “every corner of the universe except the chambers of the human heart.” What exactly does any of that mean? I’m the author, and I can’t say with certainty. Perplexity about it abounds for me, but perplexity is where I best like to wallow. Answers, however, leave me with a chill. There’s little more frightening to me than a sure answer, especially when the person giving it has a gun or a pen. One thing I’m certain of is the peril of certainty. It can make of morality a violent disaster. It’s blind but believes no one else can see. In the service of fiction it’s a danger and a death knell. I don’t know what John Gardner meant by “moral fiction,” even though he wrote on the subject at length, but I do know that it has no dogma, lessons to impart, answers, claims, or certainties. I’ll venture that it’s written by people who know they don’t have a right to the final word, and who, out of respect for their own uncertainty, aren’t about the business of trying to undo yours.

In The Western Canon, Bloom denounces “schools of resentment” bound together by a common belief in a social purpose for reading. I must be a member of one of these schools, because cleaving politics from aesthetics sounds impossible to me. You might as well excise a man’s brain and assert he still lives. The same goes for cleaving morality from aesthetics. Art for art’s sake, after all, is, among other things, a moral proposition. Art that purports to be art and only art takes a position as solidly entrenched in morality as Aesop’s fables. Why, then, is there so much squeamishness in the creative classes when it comes to morality? Why do they conflate morality with moralizing? This sense of it, so small, froward, and specious, tells us to flee when we hear the word “moral,” but no matter where we go, we find it still there, embedded as it is in the fabric of our thought, feeling, and imagination.

Asking whether the novel, as a genre, has political and social efficacy is, to me, like asking whether the pope is Catholic—meaning, both, that the answer is obvious and the question tired. A novel’s value depends partly on stylistic accomplishment, such as control of syntax and mastery of diction, and partly on the skillful employment of convention (and of anti-convention), but more on what it’s doing in the world. “Why should novelists do what they do?” ought to be, for novelists, a troubling question.


I can infer that while writing Snow Falling on Cedars, I felt, alongside terrible ambition, a will toward moral purpose. I might even have believed that the two went together. In 1995, in the middle of a decade of American optimism, I told an audience that

It is helpful for me to imagine humanity today, allegorically, as a small weary tribe assailed on all sides by overwhelmingly troubling forces. It is winter, and the people are cold and starving, many have died and others are sick, there is no food to be had, the days are dark, cruel enemies are closing in. The sun has set and the wind has come up and the cries of the children can be heard. In desperation the tribe gathers around the warmth of a fire which will shortly go out, for there is little fuel to be had. And when the chiefs and spirit keepers are all done speaking and silence has fallen across the land, all will turn to the tribe’s storyteller, not just to be swept away, transported out of troubled times by the sheer force of a well-told story, but more importantly because without stories, stories that inspire those who hear them to carry on with the work of sustaining what is best in human beings—without stories, there is no tribe.

That’s considerably loftier than it needs to be, somewhat histrionic, and definitely hyperbolic, but actually I don’t disagree with myself, or rather, with who I was when I said it. Since then everything and nothing has changed, and as for the future, we might imagine, like Bloom, a third novel in a sequence begun by Harper Lee and continued by me, one “that will deal with Arab-Americans under suspicion in our Age of Terror.” When it’s written, the torch will duly be passed to another writer of a “humane Period Piece.” In the meantime I carry it across the millennial divide as a gift I don’t necessarily deserve.


Snow Falling on Cedars has been, for 20 years now, astoundingly popular, and sometimes I’m asked why. I don’t know the answer. Maybe it was just in the right place at the right time. Maybe it’s just a whodunit (spiced by the enticement of unrequited love) with enough ambition behind it to make readers feel good about the genre. Or maybe it’s the novel’s pace, not so much stately as frustrating—the pages turn, but the reader is mad at them, and then, as they dwindle, wants more. The narrative voice is omniscient, distant, old-fashioned, inert, poetic, and romantic, with something in it conspicuously held back. It maintains its dispassion while sounding a note of mystery, and while intimating something assiduously unarticulated. This narrator doesn’t make a fool of himself with flash, but on the other hand, he is risk averse and plays it straight, refusing to take on a personal color. Hiding his face, looming invisibly, he reveals himself as philosophical and private, as someone engaged at a brooding remove—in short, someone like Ishmael Chambers, who dislikes people but, at least ostensibly, loves humanity.

If my notes are a valid indication, there was a time when I thought “Miyomoto” should be “Omoto,” that Kabuo should meet Carl Heine on the water with a lantern in one hand and a revolver in the other, that the story should open on Pearl Harbor Day, that Ishmael Chambers should have two older brothers, that it would be best to begin in the 1980s with a first-person narrator who is a sleuth about history, that the novel would be best if it didn’t include a trial, and that its title ought to be Discord. Discord I quickly acknowledged as wrong, but when my editor countered with The Cedars of San Piedro—which sounded to me like a bad golf course in Spain—I felt forced toward more judicious tiptoeing of the sort that informed our polite process. Earlier, she’d felt that, because I was in so many hearts and minds, the book lacked an emotional center. I’d countered that this breadth of omniscience was necessary to my theme of communal responsibility. Later, she said my prose style was wooden. I agreed, and tried to change that. Next she wondered if I’d overdone it with the flashbacks. I answered that the story depends on an accounting of the past as it relates to present circumstance. In this manner we muddled forward.

Reading my novel 20 years after its publication produced a singular self-consciousness. Starting with its epigrams, and even before, I felt determined to be critical. I wanted to feel better than Snow Falling on Cedars, superior to its simplicities, older, wiser, less certain, improved. Posturing in front of myself this way made reading that much harder, but still I tried not to miss what was on the page. There I found conviction and sincerity—which, taken together as a sensibility, missed too much. Where was life as it is? I couldn’t find it very often. Here was a straightforward, plain-speaking story about which I might just as readily say that it played no tricks and didn’t point at its author. In other words, for all the ways Snow Falling on Cedars struck me as immature, it also struck me as the opposite. Short on view, it was focused and humane. It offered tempered hope. It acknowledged our existential distress without succumbing to it, and wasn’t in the world just to glorify itself. If a book was a person, Snow Falling on Cedars would be a white guy in his 20s so full of idealism that even blind he does some good. I can’t dislike him. He keeps winding up and throwing with unabated energy, puncturing small holes in the edifice of entropy as if the second law of thermodynamics didn’t predict the heat death of the universe. There are worse ways to be than that.


Snow Falling on Cedars is a novel with CliffsNotes. Essays about it are free online, or can be downloaded for a price. Barnes & Noble sells a Snow Falling on Cedars lesson plan in its Nook Book format offering, among other things, 20 fun activities. “Snow falling on cedars” hasn’t become as resonant as, say, “catch-22,” but it is so widely in use as to embarrass me. On occasion, it fills out a crossword puzzle, or lends itself to public wordplay, and it is legitimate provender for the television show Jeopardy! It has a modest life in cartoon drawings, in community theaters, as a photo caption, as fodder for high school video projects, and most satisfyingly of all, among prominently banned books. If you want, you can buy a simplified edition, or read it in Mandarin, Hungarian, or Finnish. Snow Falling on Cedars is also my identity: I am the author of it, first and foremost that. Here and there I’m celebrated for raising awareness of the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, but elsewhere I’m castigated for perpetuating stereotypes, and for being exactly the sort of white guy—maybe even the avatar of this sort—who can’t write about race without a white hero front and center. Both parties make credible and valid points. Meanwhile, the novels I’ve published in the wake of Snow have been inundated by its enduring presence. They’ve disappeared under banks of snow and are only now and then dug up and thawed out.

The answer to the question, “How do you feel about Snow Falling on Cedars? ” is: “Like its father, worst enemy, high priest, and beneficiary,” or, “the way you might feel toward a house you used to live in.” I don’t wear it as a hair shirt or fly it as a Lear jet, and it’s not a millstone or an albatross around my neck. It’s out of my control—if it ever was in my control. At this very moment I sense it out there, agitating 16-year-olds with papers due tomorrow on young love, war, prejudice, or justice. Which reminds me that I had them in mind when Snow Falling on Cedars was just notes in a teacher’s desk drawer. I wrote it for them.

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