Snow Falling on Cedars

by David Guterson

Year published: 1995
Category: mystery; literary fiction; historical fiction

SUMMARY {from the back cover}:

San Piedro Island, north of Puget Sound, is a place so isolated that no one who lives there can afford to make enemies. But in 1954 a local fisherman is found suspiciously drowned, and a Japanese-American named Kabuo Miyamoto is charged with his murder.

In the course of the ensuing trial, it becomes clear that what is at stake is more than one man’s guilt. For on San Piedro, memory grows as thickly as cedar trees and the fields of ripe strawberries—memories of a charmed love affair between a white boy and the Japanese girl who grew up to become Kabuo’s wife; memories of land desired, paid for, and lost. Above all, San Piedro is haunted by the memory of what happened to its Japanese residents during World War II, when an entire community was sent into exile while its neighbors watched. Gripping, tragic, and densely atmospheric, Snow Falling on Cedars is a masterpiece of suspense.


Snow Falling on Cedars is not a thriller. So why am I compelled to write a review and post it at Because this novel is so compelling, so beautiful, that I want anyone who hasn’t heard of it before to have the chance to read it. It shares one important thing with thrillers: the suspense is unbearable, and you will keep turning the pages late into the night.

Snow Falling on Cedars is a murder mystery without a stereotyped hero or detective. Told serially from the different points of view of various members of the community, the basic framework is a murder trial. In the opening, we learn that Kabuo is on trial, and the fundamental question of whether he is guilty (not to mention whether he will be convicted) remains open until the very end—quite a feat that makes it impossible to put this book aside for long.

As you read from the perspective of the local reporter, the accused, the lawyers, the sheriff, the wife, the victim’s mother, and others, you are drawn in to a profound understanding of what life is like in this community, about the terrible impact of the war, about people who are honest and hardworking but sometimes handicapped by the events of their past. You will read about the impractical dreams of youth, and the practical trade-offs of adulthood. You’ll understand dignity and courage and cowardice, love and cruelty in the guise of pragmatism.

Okay, so that makes the book sound pretty heavy. But trust me, it is so suspenseful it goes down easy. (The author is also nonjudgmental about his characters; as in reality, shades of gray abound.)

Read this book if: you like whodunits

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