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Snow Falling on Cedars

David Guterson

Study Questions & Essay Topics

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Study Questions

1.

How does Guterson use Kabuo’s criminal trial to explore prejudice against Japanese-Americans?

Kabuo’s trial illustrates both the legal and social aspects of discrimination. The American legal system is supposed to ensure the fair, objective judgment of an accused individual’s guilt or innocence. However, the laws of this system can themselves institutionalize racial prejudice. As Judge Fielding explains, Japanese immigrants were legally barred from owning land prior to World War II. This racist law prevented Carl Heine Sr. from selling his land to Zenhichi Miyamoto, which in turn led to the dispute between Kabuo and Carl. Additionally, it was an executive order—not itself a law but an order carrying the force of law—that sent Japanese-Americans to internment camps and forced them to relinquish the few possessions they did own. The legacy of discrimination in the law has contributed to Kabuo’s predicament, as well as to the predicaments of many Japanese-Americans in the years after the war.

In addition to highlighting the legal aspects of anti-Japanese prejudice, Kabuo’s trial shows how prejudice can taint the pursuit of objective truth and justice. Full of racist stereotypes of the Japanese, the white community has already presumed Kabuo guilty before the first witness even testifies. The prosecutor, Alvin Hooks, manipulates the jury’s prejudice to try to bring about Kabuo’s conviction. In his final statement, he asks the jury to look at Kabuo’s face and decide whether he is guilty. In doing so, Hooks subtly prods the jury to use their biases to judge whether this Japanese-American individual is guilty of a crime. Hooks effectively puts Kabuo—and all Japanese-Americans—on trial for the events of World War II. The coincidence that the second day of Kabuo’s trial is December 7, 1954, the thirteenth anniversary of Japan’s surprise bombing of Pearl Harbor, further weighs against him, despite the fact that these events have no bearing on whether he killed Carl Heine. Finally, the courtroom itself reflects the persistent racism in society; while the whites sit in front and participate in the trial, the Japanese-Americans sit in the back and, fearing harassment, remain silent. Taken as a whole, the criminal trial demonstrates the disparity between the ideals and reality of America’s legal system and society.

2.

Guterson alternates between scenes taking place in the courtroom in the present and flashbacks from the past. What effect does such a narrative structure have?

In alternating between court testimony and flashbacks, Guterson parallels the legal system’s case against Kabuo in the literal courtroom with the Japanese-American community’s case against their white government and neighbors in the courtroom of memory. Balancing these two different trials, the narrative illustrates the influence of the past on the present. During Etta Heine’s testimony against Kabuo, for instance, we learn that Kabuo was angry with Etta for selling the land that he felt belonged to his family. Before Etta finishes testifying, however, a flashback to a time before the war shows us that Etta has always resented the Japanese and that she used the Japanese internment as a pretext for cheating the Miyamotos out of their land. The prejudiced nature of the laws and the prejudiced atmosphere at Kabuo’s trial prevent us from learning the whole story. The flashbacks, however, fill in the gaps in the story and illustrate the biases that bear on the trial. As we see with Etta, the behavior of whites toward Japanese before, during, and after World War II is often legal but immoral. In this sense, the flashbacks allow us to see a fuller picture of the past and present, where the morality—not simply the legality—of individual and collective behavior is on trial.

3.

How does Alvin Hooks use the jurors’ prejudices against Japanese-Americans in an effort to win his case against Kabuo?

At one point during the trial, Hooks offers a hypothetical scenario in which Kabuo pretends to be in trouble at sea to lure Carl to his death. Hooks’s scenario plays to the white jurors’ stereotype of Japanese-Americans as remorseless traitors and murderers. Hooks subtly casts Kabuo in the light of the pervasive wartime belief that Japanese-Americans professed false loyalty to the United States. During his closing arguments, Hooks again tries to appeal to the jurors’ prejudices by telling them to look at Kabuo’s face and do their duty as citizens of their community. Hooks uses logic in his closing arguments that closely parallels the logic of wartime hysteria. He invites the people of San Piedro to be good citizens by again purging the “Japanese menace” from their community. Hooks reinforces the white community’s racism by reawakening the same prejudices that allowed San Piedro’s whites to accept passively—and in many cases even profit from—the Japanese internment. In giving their racism some legitimacy, Hooks offers the whites of San Piedro a justification for their behavior during the war, insisting that their fears of Japanese treachery and murder are valid.

Suggested Essay Topics

1. What dramatic purpose does the snowstorm serve? How does Guterson relate the storm to his narrative?

2. Does Ishmael’s decision to bring the lighthouse evidence to Judge Fielding’s attention represent a major development in Ishmael’s character? What is the significance of Ishmael’s decision?

3. The novel presents several different codes of behavior, each associated with a different character. What are some of these codes and how do they differ?

4. Considering the demographics of San Piedro’s population, what is ironic about the prejudice against Japanese immigrants and their descendants? How does Guterson develop this irony?

5. Why is Sergeant Maples an inappropriate expert witness on kendo?

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