by David Guterson. New York: Vintage Books, 1995. 460pp. Paper. $14.95. ISBN: 9780679764021.

Reviewed by Margaret S. Hrezo, Department of Political Science, Radford University, mhrezo [at]


Good books have many layers. SNOW FALLING ON CEDARS is no exception. It is the presence of those layers that makes this book an excellent choice for such classes as Law and Society, Sociology of Law, and Introduction to Politics.

At the most obvious level SNOW FALLING ON CEDARS is the story of a murder trial. The issue seems simple: Did one San Piedro Island, Washington fisherman kill another over a disputed piece of property? Kabuo Miyamoto’s father, Zenhichi, dreamed of owning a strawberry farm. A native of Japan, Zenhichi could never become a citizen, so he could not own land. Instead, he entered into an illegal contract with Carl Heine, Sr. to purchase seven acres on the theory that they would legally pass to his son, Kabuo (who was a citizen), when he came of age. Zenhichi had a down payment and made every payment except the final one. But the final payment came due while he and his family were interned in Manzanar during World War II. Carl Heine, Sr. died during the war and his wife returned the money Miyamoto had paid her husband and sold the property at a higher price to a white man. Zenhichi also died before returning to San Piedro.

Kabuo Miyamoto felt those seven acres were stolen from his family. When he heard that the strawberry farm was for sale again he tried to buy the seven acres, only to find that the original owner’s son, Carl Heine, Jr., already had put a down payment on the entire property. Kabuo approached Carl Jr. asking Carl to sell him the seven acres. Carl said he had to think about it. And then Carl drowned on the fishing grounds. Was it an accident or murder? The sheriff and the prosecutor opted for murder at the hands of Kabuo Miyamoto. The only physical evidence was the presence of Carl Heine’s blood on the handle of Kabuo’s fishing gaff. But there was testimony that Kabuo gave Carl’s mother ‘dirty looks,’ that he was an expert at kendo, and that the head wound found on Carl Heine was similar to one that would be inflicted by a “right handed Jap” wielding a “gun butt.” And there was the fact that to the islanders Kabuo Miyamoto reminded citizens of the pictures of Japanese soldiers in propaganda films—“his aspect connoted dignity. And there was nothing akin to softness in him anywhere, no part of him that was vulnerable. He was, they decided, not like them at all” (p.412).

He was “not like them at all.” That phrase is what increases the layers of complexity to the story. Beneath the surface plot, SNOW FALLING ON CEDARS is a story about a star-crossed love between two teenagers from different cultures; a story about anti-Japanese prejudice in the United States; a paradigmatic story of the outsider and the insider in the contemporary world; [*326] and the story of the embittered Ishmael Chambers, island native, war veteran, newspaper editor, and as a young man, lover of Kabuo Miyamoto’s wife—a man outcast and redeemed by circumstance and choice. It subtly raises issues of equality, freedom, obligation, and justice.

At its deepest level, however, SNOW FALLING ON CEDARS does what the best books about law do. It takes its readers to the heart of what it means to live as a political community—to the place in human beings that evokes ideas about community, meaning and order and attempts to translate those ideas into symbols that can be shared. It asks the reader to consider whether a sense of community with those decidedly different from the majority is possible. It also reminds the reader that the “foreigners” considered the white community just as foreign—just as “Other”—as the white community considered it (pp.199-202). It forces the reader to confront the alienation, apparently rampant in contemporary society, not just of one group from another but of the individual from himself and from all other human beings. Ishmael’s story brings the reader face-to-face with the predominant theme of contemporary political philosophy—man against himself. Finally, this book demands that the reader consider the respective roles of moral choice and accident in human life. These are the layers that make the book most interesting to teach in a political science or law class with a liberal arts focus. This book, like all good works of art, requires a response by the reader. It asks the reader to think about community and her own sense of the political implications of estrangement and the dilemma of human choice in a world that often seems beyond human control.

Estrangement and unity always have been key issues in forming and maintaining political communities. Would Barack Obama have had to make a speech addressing the issue of race in the United States if Americans did not see so many of their fellow citizens as “not like them at all”? Is anyone like each other at all? The subject matter of politics is the “people’s things”—the community. Is politics, in any other sense than the pursuit of power, possible if there are no “people” and, hence, no “people’s things”? Without a political community that shares some common goals and values, is democracy a meaningful concept?

Can there be political community in the absence of free moral choice? SNOW FALLING ON CEDARS emphasizes the importance of human choice and contradicts the view that the universe is random. Carl Heine, the most careful of men, runs down his boat batteries and his engine stops, leaving him adrift in a hazardous fog. Kabuo Miyamoto just happens to be fishing in the same area. By chance, Carl cuts his hand on Kabuo’s fishing gaff. By chance, a freighter wanders off course in the fog. By chance its huge wake reached Carl’s boat just as he was up on the mast cutting off the lantern he’d lashed there as a make-shift signal light. He just happens to hit his head on the gunnel in falling from the mast and lands unconscious in the water where he drowns. Ishmael Chambers finds the evidence that will save Kabuo Miyamoto from conviction for first degree murder by accident. [*327] Ishmael and Hatsue Imada come to love each other by accident. They are pulled apart by forces beyond their control. The war takes Ishmael’s arm and changes every veteran in ways that are hard for their families, friends, and neighbors to understand. No wonder the temptation always exists to blame everything on fate or accident. Does human effort ever make a difference, or is Ishmael correct that “most human activity was utter folly” (p.35)?

If all human action is folly, if human reason counts for little or nothing against the blind forces of accident, then law can never be anything more that what the positivists argue: “the will of the ruler habitually obeyed and backed by threats.” Some, luckier, societies might adopt H.L.A. Hart’s version and add that the will of the ruler is supplemented and limited by rules of recognition, adjudication, and change. In such a society justice can only be the application of correct procedures with no evaluation of either the procedures themselves or the goals they are designed to achieve. Law is arbitrary and justice is merely opinion. So too are equality and freedom. How would societies differentiate between better and worse regimes (something they do often) based on that definition of law? Any conceptions of law and politics based on more than force or whim require a belief in the meaningfulness of human action and a conception of human beings as creatures capable of moral choice. They require a belief that justice is more than something humans make up.

Ultimately, every political community and every set of laws that form the foundation of that society’s pattern of order require some basic societal consensus. The Greeks called it homonoia (like-mindedness). Without that consensus a society has no sense of direction or vision of an appropriate or genuinely human way of life. The challenges of the contemporary world are to reaffirm the reality of human choice and to acknowledge difference so that human societies can form a social consensus that realizes, as Carl Heine, Sr., put it: “People is people, comes down to it” (p.120). Throughout the book, but especially in defense attorney Nels Gudmunsson’s closing argument and Ishmael’s conclusion to the book, the reader finds an affirmation of human beings as moral agents, an affirmation of law and justice as sources of human order, an affirmation of politics as more than power acts or “the authoritative allocation of resources,” and an affirmation of human reason, responsibility, answerability and meaning as the sources of happiness and a flourishing life. As Plato said, politics is concerned with the happiest and most flourishing kind of life. Nels Gudmunsson put it another way: “Will you contribute to the indifferent forces that ceaselessly conspire toward injustice? Or will you stand up against this endless tide and in the face of it be truly human?” (p.419). In the choice to be truly human lies the function of law and of politics.

Hart, H.L.A. 1961. THE CONCEPT OF LAW. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

© Copyright 2008 by the author, Margaret S. Hrezo.