By Chet Yarbrough
Snow Falling on Cedars
By: David Guterson
Narrated by George Guidall
David Guterson creates a court room drama in “Snow Falling on Cedars”. The court case is presided over by a competent Judge, a determined prosecuting attorney, and a detail-oriented public defender.
“Snow Falling on Cedars” reflects on a criminal trial’s strengths and vulnerabilities. It is a story of institutionalized discrimination that is as relevant today as in the 40s and 50s. Though the author, Guterson, is not a lawyer, he is the son of a criminal defense attorney.
As an author, Guterson tells the story of a Japanese American citizen accused of first-degree murder.
The story unravels slowly but with beautifully written descriptions of an island community off the Washington coast. The setting begins in the 1940’s and ends in the 50’s.
The historical relevance of “Snow Falling on Cedars” may be repeated in the tribulations of Carlos Ghosn; not in the sense of indictment, but for being guilty or innocent based on cultural bias.
Carlos Ghosn–Former CEO of Renault, Nissan, and Mitsubishi Motors (indicted by Japan) who escaped to Lebanon to avoid a trial which he believes is culturally biased.
The accused, Kabuo Miyamoto, is a gill-net fisherman like the person who is murdered. The crime allegedly occurs on a foggy night when both fishermen lay their nets in the open sea.
The victim is Carl Heine, a childhood friend of Kabuo before the war. Kabuo’s wife is Hatsue Miyamoto who also grew up on the island. A fourth major character is Ishmael Chambers, the local newspaper publisher. All three men serve in WWII.
In early chapters of Guterson’s story, a young Ishmael falls in love with Hatsue. However, at a critical point in their burgeoning feelings, Hatsue, her family, and all Japanese-descent Americans are interned in a northwestern camp during the war. The internment separates Ismael from Hatsue and she eventually marries Kabuo.
A NORTHWEST JAPANESE INTERNMENT CAMP:
This is the era of Pearl Harbor, WWII, and Japanese American internment.
The story explores the nature of human beings in a small American community.
Kabuo, Carl, and Ismael serve in the military during WWII. Kabuo serves on the German front; Ismael on the Japanese front. Carl’s location during the war is superfluous except that he served and was the son of a local strawberry farmer who employed Hatsue’s father.
Before WWII, Americans of Japanese descent were not allowed to own property on the island. Hatsue’s father makes a deal with Carl’s father to buy 7 acres of land for strawberries on an unrecorded contract. (This private contract violates the intent of the law.) The last 2 payments on the property are not made because of Japanese American internment during the war.
A feud rises between the Miyamoto family and the Heine family because the 7 acres is sold to another, based on Miyamoto’s payment default. There had been a verbal agreement for the last two payments but it is dishonored because Carl’s father, who had made the agreement, died. This is interpreted as Miyammoto’s motive for the murder of Carl on a foggy night of fishing.
The American judicial system’s intent is to mitigate unfairness by having 12 jurors of one’s peers, competent legal investigators, judges, and attorneys. However, fairness often takes a back seat to politics.
Facts of a trial, whether true or not, are subject to interpretation. What one sees, hears, or feels affects opinions.
Guterson creates characters that fulfill the intent of the American judicial system. The 12 jurors are islanders (though none are Japanese Americans). The investigators are thorough (though they miss two important but obscure facts). The judge is competent. The prosecution and defense attorneys are fully prepared in presenting their arguments.
In spite of America’s intent, Guterson illustrates how America’s judicial system is subverted by human nature. Guterson peels back the layers of human nature that distort truth.
Here is where the reinstitution of the death penalty by William Barr raises the question of “common good”. Juries do make mistakes.
How many innocent people have been convicted and executed in the United States? The Human Rights Foundation reports 31 innocent people were executed between 1973 and 2004.
Facts are immutable but facts are woven into stories by the human mind.
Those stories fit preconceived notions borne from personal experience and internalized opinions. Personal opinions are a fungible commodity that can distort the truth.
Facts are clear. Miyamoto is a Japanese American. Carl Heine is a white American. However, during the trial these facts are interpreted differently. The prosecutor points to facts for guilt and the defending attorney points to facts for innocence. The truth of facts is to be adjudicated by a jury of peers. However, a jury of “peers” listens to prosecution and defense arguments and makes a judgement based on their personal interpretation of the facts and arguments of the attorneys.
Guterson cleverly interjects the feelings generated by the main characters who served in WWII. Kabuo feels guilty for having killed a young German soldier who seemed to be asking for mercy. Kabuo’s guilt for murdering the young German makes him feel a cosmic force, like fate, is leading him to the gallows. He begins to think he should die.
Ismael lost an arm in the war and led a broken-hearted life because of Hatsue’s marriage to another man. Ismael resents Hatsue’s rejection of him and chooses to withhold a crucial fact in the trial.
Layers upon layers of human nature’s fragility bares witness to the truth.
A man’s life hangs in the balance. Will he be convicted for murder based on facts or truth? Is Miyamoto guilty or innocent? Or, like all human beings, is he guilty of some things and innocent of others?
In some sense, the American judicial system is on trial in “Snow Falling on Cedars”. Truth is a slippery slope. Facts are immutable but interpretation is fungible. Knowing facts is only part of the truth. Therein lies the tragic reality of institutionalized discrimination.