Visions of Paradise

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Snow Falling on Cedars

At the turn of the new millennium, I bought a desk calendar had a lot of little features devoted to books and writers, including a listing by Michael Bishop entitled 104 Really Cool Books. It was akin to those “best of the century” lists which were popular at the time, but his list made no claims to be any type of “best of...” but only 104 books which Bishop really enjoyed and which had not made any other lists he had seen or had gotten much recognition.

Quite a few books on the list were either by SF writers or SF themselves: Brian W. Aldiss’ The Malacia Tapestry; J. G. Ballard’s Empire of the Sun; Gregory Benford’s Timescape; Ray Bradbury’s A Medicine for Melancholy; Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed; John Crowley’s Little, Big; Samuel R. Delany’s Atlantis: Three Tales; Bradley Denton’s Blackburn; Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle; Thomas M. Disch’s 334; Harlan Ellison‘s Deathbird Stories; Karen Joy Fowler’s Sarah Canary; R.A. Lafferty’s Nine Hundred Grandmothers; Ursula K. Le Guin‘s The Left Hand of Darkness; C.S. Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet; James Morrow’s Towing Jehovah; Paul Park’s The Gospel of Corax; Joanna Russ’s The Female Man; Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow; Geoff Ryman’s Was; Lucius Shepard’s The Jaguar Hunter; Lewis Shiner’s Glimpses; Robert Silverberg’s Dying Inside; James Tiptree, Jr.’s Her Smoke Went Up Forever; Ian Watson’s The Embedding; Kate Wilhelm’s Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang; and Gene Wolfe’s Peace.

I’ve read nearly all the sf-related books, and thought them all at least very good, and some truly wonderful. But those books comprised barely one-quarter of the entire list. Surely some of the non sf-related books must be equally wonderful, no?

One of the first books I sampled on the list was David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars. On the surface this book is a mystery: in the mid-1950s on an island near Seattle where a Japanese-American is accused of the murder of a European-American. Set around the trial itself the bulk of the novel dips into the lives of the murder’s main characters, devoting a chapter to studying each of them: the accused murderer, his wife, his wife’s parents, the victim, his mother, the police chief, the local reporter.

As the lives deepen, we get a growing sense of how people lived on the island. We learn about leaving one’s native land and trying to assimilate in a totally foreign land, and also about how it is to suddenly share one’s small world with foreigners who are obviously different in culture and even in values than onself. We learn about racism, both blatant racism on the part of old-timers on the island and on the part of the federal government which strikes at Japanese immigrants at the onset of World War II, but also more subtle racism on the part of both Europeans and Asians.

And we see the difficulties of the most forbidden relationship of all, a love affair between a European male and a traditional Japanese girl.

This is a powerful, moving novel which combines wonderful characters, an exciting mystery, and love of the land in which it is set. I agree with Michael Bishop in recommending this novel highly.