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Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada
I am a lawyer in Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada who enjoys reading, especially mysteries. Since 2000 I have been writing personal book reviews. This blog includes my reviews, information on and interviews with authors and descriptions of mystery bookstores I have visited. I strive to review all Saskatchewan mysteries. Other Canadian mysteries are listed under the Rest of Canada. As a lawyer I am always interested in legal mysteries. I have a separate page for legal mysteries. Occasionally my reviews of legal mysteries comment on the legal reality of the mystery. You can follow the progression of my favourite authors with up to 15 reviews. Each year I select my favourites in "Bill's Best of ----". As well as current reviews I am posting reviews from 2000 to 2011. Below my most recent couple of posts are the posts of Saskatchewan mysteries I have reviewed alphabetically by author. If you only want a sentence or two description of the book and my recommendation when deciding whether to read the book look at the bold portion of the review. If you would like to email me the link to my email is on the profile page.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Race and Ethnicity in War

In Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson race and ethnicity become decisive during World War II.  Japanese and American residents shared the fictional island of San Piedro in Puget Sound before the war. There was occasional conflict and some prejudice but there was more respect. Despite the personal knowledge the white residents had of their Japanese neighbours their relationships changed instantly after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

The experience of the Japanese islanders of San Piedro shows how fear turned a nation against an ethnic group. They were overtly loyal to America and denounced the Japanese attack of December 7, 1941. Even as they are rounded up and dispatched inland young Japanese men join the American army to fight and die for the United States. Their loyalty and sacrifice did not end the internment.

The internment of the Japanese because of fear not fact cannot help but resonate in our world today when it is Muslims who are feared because of the war against the terrorism of ISIS and Al Qaeda. In the rhetoric of Donald Trump it is easy to see the echoes of the hysteria that swept North America in 1942.

A few weeks ago Khizr and Ghazala Khan stood before America to honour their son, Humayun, and rebuke Trump for his lack of respect for the American Constitution. The defining moment of the American presidential campaign has been Khizr’s declaration that Trump “had sacrificed nothing and no one”.

Will it be different for the Muslims of America and Canada from what the Japanese experienced during World War II? I would not be surprised if there is a tweet tomorrow or next week of Trump speaking in favour of internment for Muslims.

In Canada there is no campaign to isolate Canadian Muslims. Our federal election last year, while fiercely partisan, never approached the verbal excesses of America’s current election.

In Snow Falling on Cedars the reader sees the Japanese as persons not abstract beings. The boys form the majority of players on the high school baseball team. The teenage Hatsue dresses in “pleated skirt, argyle sweater, white bobby socks folded down crisply above the polished onyx buckles of her shoes”. Their parents work long hours to establish farms and businesses. They are living out the American dream.

The fears of the Japanese never attach to any actions of sabotage or espionage. Japanese farmers are arrested because they have dynamite for tree stumps and “clearing the land”. There is no problem for white farmers to have dynamite.

There were island residents in Snow Falling on Cedars who saw the Japanese of the island as loyal. There were more islanders who, even though there was no evidence that their neighbours were a danger, distrusted them and were glad to see them interned.

Khizr and Ghazala provided a human face for the loyal Muslims of the United States.

I am sure there are dangerous Muslims in North America. In 2015 and 2016 there have been individual acts of terror or radicalization of small groups in Canada and the United States but there is no evidence of large conspiracies among Canadian and American Muslims.

My personal experience with the consequences of fear came from representing hemophiliacs with AIDS in the early 1990’s. It was a time of widespread fear of AIDS. Most of my clients concealed they were infected. They feared they would be ostracized. When our office launched a court action for 11 of them we obtained a court order that the plaintiffs be described by non-identifying initials. It was the first time in Saskatchewan a civil action had proceeded with the identities of the plaintiffs concealed.

Even in death some of my clients kept secret they had died from one of the complications of AIDS. I became uncomfortable at one funeral that I would cause a family distress if mourners realized the only reason I would be there was because the deceased was a client with AIDS.

Even though it had been known since the mid-1980’s that AIDS was not transmitted by mere association with the infected and that contact such as a hug was not dangerous it took until well into the 1990’s for the fear of the infected to decline.

In the summer of 2016 I see growing fear of Muslims in North America comparable to what happened to the Japanese during World War II. Will fear destroy rationality again? Is the example of the Khan family as patriotic Americans enough to challenge that fear?
Guterson, David - (2016) - Snow Falling on Cedars (1995) and Life in Meskanaw and on San Piedro Island


  1. What well-written post, Bill! It's something I've been thinking about, too, as I watched what happened with the Khan family playing out. That sort of demagoguery and ethnic fear can only have tragic consequences, as we've seen. I wish we could learn more from history, because in my opinion, it's right there for us to see, as you point out so clearly. I truly hope that the Khan family reminds us that a person can be a patriotic American or Canadian, and also an observant Muslim.

    1. Margot: Thanks for the comment. It has been discouraging watching a return to rhetoric enhancing ethnic fears.

  2. Thanks for all your varied posts on this book. I read it many years ago and thought it was marvellous, and rather melancholy. Shortly afterwards I moved to the Seattle area, not that far from where the book was set.
    I liked reading your memories of your youth, and also your thoughtful and serious comments on current affairs. These are teoubled times.

    1. Moira: Thanks for the kind words. I did not really feel the melancholy as I became wrapped up in the trial. On reflection I can see your feeling of melancholy.

      I must admit I did not see these troubled times coming a few years ago.

  3. Again, this is a very good book, well-written and poignant, not to mention of educational value, an example of how fiction can change readers and bring compassion and empathy to living people.

    The internment of the Japanese was a shameful part of U.S. history, just as the hostile campaign to Muslims is, too. Someone shot and killed an imam and his assistant in cold blood over the weekend right out in broad daylight. A suspect was arrested; no motive has been stated, but Muslims in NYC think it was a hate crime.

    That is what Trump's bigotry (played constantly on TV) can lead to in the extreme case. And then Britain's BREXIT from the EU and the killing of a young woman MP because she supported immigration ofo Muslims, shows how violence can be instigated.

    I hope we all get through this period and that sanity and anti-bigotry prevail.

    1. Kathy D.: Thanks for the comment. A few years ago I thought tolerance was growing in the world. I was wrong. I do not see sanity on the horizon.

  4. I just think of upper New York state in North Tonawanda where someone threatened the only African-American firefighter in the town, told him to quit his job and leave town (using racist slurs) in a letter on Aug. 1. Two days later, the person set his apartment on fire, destroyed it and the family's possessions and killed their two cats. A neighbor confessed to the arson, but not the letter. He was arrested and charged with arson, but is out on bail.

    Luckily, the parents and two children, as well as the residents of the three other damages apartments, were not home.

    What happened? The fire company took hours of calls supporting the firefighter, fundraised, collected furniture and toys. The community turned out in support -- this in a town 95% white. Hundreds of people turned out to help.

    One firefighter who didn't know him set up an online fundraising page; last I checked it had raised $152,000 from 4,000 people nationally.

    The townspeople held a demonstration through the town against racism, not political activists, but friends and neighbors of Kenneth Walker.

    The Buffalo News said that the way the community came forward showed that the hate of a few was countered by thousands of good people. A civil rights leader said that the response showed how racism can be combated in other communities.

    That gives me hope. I've been keeping track of this with a friend in Buffalo. She says this is a sea change in an area with a shameful history of bigotry.

    Reading the stories of support have reinforced my hope for humanity.

    1. Kathy D.: Thanks for the comment. Your story is hopeful and encouraging.

  5. A very interesting post, Bill. Thanks for all this thoughtful commentary on Snow Falling on Cedars and how it relates to today's issues.

    1. TracyK: Thanks for the comment. The world is anxiously watching America's decisions in this fall's elections.