The Narrative Technique in "Snow Falling on Cedars"

David Guterson's "Snow Falling on Cedars" joins "Joy Luck Club" and "Jade Peony" in its depiction of Japanese-American citizens attempting to gain national identity against the hateful stereotypes that painted the race after World War II. The novel also is a murder mystery with a deceptive narrative technique that begins simply but segues to an elaborate flashback system.

A Story of Love and Murder

The tale begins with echoes of Faulkner's "Intruder in the Dust," as a small town is galvanized by the arrest of a minority member whom many residents despise: Kabuo Miyamoto is jailed for the murder of fisherman Carl Heine in snow-buried Puget Sound in 1954. The local paper's editor, with the evocative name of Ishmael Chambers, meanwhile rekindles his feelings for Miyamoto's wife, Hatsue, who cannot "profess . . . that what she feels for him is love at all." The reader might fear a drippy tale of unrequited interracial love is at hand, but Guterson steers the novel in a fascinating direction.

Flashbacks Add Depth

Guterson's narrator speaks in omniscient third person, which allows an elaborate series of flashbacks to unfold. These depict Chambers' wartime affair with Hatsue, and their breakup when he is injured, after which his hatred of her turns global: "The Japs did it. They shot my arm off. Japs." Guterson tosses further flashbacks into the narrative mix, detailing the history of the Chambers family and their ruined deal with Miyamoto's family over a strawberry field, a sale ironically aborted as the Miyamotos are sent to Manzanar, a war relocation camp in California. Thus Guterson's love story is fueled by personal and racial hatred on both sides of the trial.

Flashbacks Echo Complexity

Heine, the murdered man, is brought into the history as the narrative flashes back to his family's original ownership of the field. At this point the tale resembles Kurosawa's "Rashomon"; we are not sure where the real truth lies, in murder, race hatred or lost love, nor do we know where motives begin and end. "What facts do we print, Ishmael?" asks his associate; the narrative technique has deliberately blurred our sensibilities -- and Ishmael's -- to the point where no one seeks truth. They -- and we -- don't want to be confused with facts; the narrator knows all, but tells little.

Irony and No Real Answers

In an irony-soaked ending, Heine's death is theorized as accidental, and Miyamoto is freed, but the narrative line gives us little traditional relief. There is no reconciliation among the parties, and Chambers abandons himself to solitude -- not unlike "Moby Dick's" Ishmael. Guterson's omniscient narrative technique, objective in the trial but subjective in flashbacks, dissects not only America's post-war hatred of the Japanese, but also the fate of citizens of Asian descent in America, promising no real truth, relief or resolution to either side.

  • Snow Falling on Cedars; David Guterson
About the Author

Michael Stratford is a National Board-certified and Single Subject Credentialed teacher with a Master of Science in educational rehabilitation (University of Montana, 1995). He has taught English at the 6-12 level for more than 20 years. He has written extensively in literary criticism, student writing syllabi and numerous classroom educational paradigms.

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