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.