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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.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson

Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson (1995) – In the mid-1950’s a murder trial is underway on San Piedro Island in Puget Sound and snow is falling steadily on the cedar trees that define the hills of the island. Japanese fisher, Kabuo Miyamoto, is charged with murdering another fisher, Carl Heine Jr.

Having never read any books about the Japanese internment in World War II in America I have read two books within a month where the consequences of the internment are at the heart of each book.

Where Allegiance focused on the constitutional questions of internment and the physical camps used for the internment Snow Falling on Cedars concentrates on the personal consequences.
Zenhichi Miyamoto made a deal to purchase 7 acres of strawberry land from Carl Heine Sr. in 1934. The transaction is made at a time when Japanese immigrants cannot become American citizens and cannot buy land as they are aliens. Their children, born in America, at 20 become American citizens and can buy land. Zenhichi and Carl, over the objections of his Carl’s wife Etta, agree that Zenhichi will make a down payment and then semi-annual payments for 8 years on a lease which is really a disguised agreement for sale. At the end of the payments Kabuo will be 20 and the land will be transferred to him. Because of the internment the last payment is missed in 1942 though Zenhichi has agreed Carl can take all the strawberries grown.
While Carl is a fair man Etta is a bigot. With the Miyamoto’s still interned in 1944 she sells the land after Carl dies, giving a modest amount to the Miyamoto family. Her actions leave a permanent resentment in the Miyamoto family.

We do not often think about the frustrations of those have suffered injustice. How the pain burns within them.

The prosecutor Alvin Hooks has a studied folksy style. At the same time he regularly breaches the laws of evidence with his leading and oft irrelevant, though prejudicial, questioning.

Defence counsel, Nels Gudmundsson, is 79 and physically worn down but his mind is keen. He is adept at bringing out the weaknesses within the State’s case against Kabuo.

Guterson creates an instant rapport between lawyer and client. In his cell Kabuo thinks about their first meeting:

He liked this man, Nels Gudmundsson. He had begun to like him on the September afternoon when he first appeared at his cell door carrying a folded chessboard beneath his arm and a Havana cigar box full of chess pieces. He’d offered Kabuo a cigar from his shirt pocket, lit his own, then brought two candy bars out of the box and dropped them on the bunk beside Kabuo without acknowledging that he had done so. It was his way of being charitable.

Snow Falling on Cedars is a book whose writing calls a reader to savour rather than rush through the pages.

Guterson needs but a few sentences to move a reader:

Kabuo was in jail on the morning their son began to walk, but in the afternoon she (Hatsue) brought the boy and he took four steps while his father watched from behind the visiting room windowpane. Afterward she’d held him up to the glass and Kabuo spoke to him through the microphone. “You can go further than me!” he’d said. “You take some steps for me, okay?”

Later Kabuo thinks about the death penalty if he is convicted and being a soldier:

The fear of death grew in him. He thought of Hatsue and of his children, and it seemed to him he must be exiled from them – because he felt for them so much love – in order to pay his debts to dead he had left on the ground in Italy.

What makes the book differs from most legal mysteries is that it is a plot that has a trial as part of the story. The emphasis is not on the lawyers. All the main characters are given important roles in the plot. It is the best description of a trial I have read in over a year. The witnesses are real people. The evidence is credible.

Tension builds through the book. As the trial proceeds the story flashes back to the lives of the characters in the years before the trials.

As the trial climaxes the story achieves a remarkable tension. It is not a Hollywood thrill and body a page but a tension of the mind that left me anxious to read the next page.

Even before reading the note on the author I could tell Guterson had lived on an island in Puget Sound. There is a telling detail in writing about a place you have lived.

Lyrical and compelling, Snow Falling on Cedars is a great book, the best I have read in 2016. Tonight's review is the first of a series of posts related to the book.


  1. I think you've put your finger, Bill, on one of the most important elements that makes up a good courtroom story: the characters. Well-written characters really do help ratchet up the tension and make the case more interesting. And this particular one and the history behind it are fascinating. Glad you enjoyed this. I look forward to your other posts about it.

    1. Margot: Thanks for the comment. It is a challenge to create an interesting trial that is integrated into an overall plot. Guterson met the challenge brilliantly.

  2. I read this book years ago and loved it. The story was beautifully told, and as you said the writing is to be savored.

    It was also an eye-opener about the feelings of the Japanese who were interned and otherwise mistreated.

    I learned a lot and I cried. It is one of those books that shows how good fiction can cause a reader to feel compassion and empathy for the characters and also for the many real people who suffered through this shameful period.

    1. Kathy D.: Thanks for the comment. Guterson is very effective at evoking the emotions of all the characters.

  3. This book really does show the role that good fiction can play in raising consciousness, educating the reader (without overdoing it) and evoking empathy.

    I lent it to so many people that it came back with pages falling out, but I was so glad that I was able to contribute to the readers a valuable experience.

    1. Kathy D.: Thanks for the comment. I can understand your willingness to share the book. I am grateful Michael shared with me.

  4. I have this book but have not read it yet. Your description makes it sound very good. The Japanese internment in World War II is a very interesting topic.

    1. TracyK: Thanks for the comment. You live in a state from which many of the Japanese were uprooted and had a huge internment center. I wonder if there is much thought given in California to the decisions of 74 years ago.