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The major theme of the novel is racism and its destructive effects on individuals and communities. The settlers on San Piedro come from many countries, but the Japanese immigrants are a different race, with different ways, beliefs, and religion. When they first come, they do not even have the right to be citizens or to own land, yet they work hard to make a place for themselves. The Heine family and its drama represents the local forces at work trying to keep the Japanese from being part of the community. In the larger context, World War II unleashes the overt racism that is always there, under the surface of daily life on the island.
The racism issue is focused on two interlocking events: the trial of Kabuo for the murder of Carl Heine, and Ishmael's long but failed romance with the young Hatsue, later Kabuo's wife. These stories begin before the war, and continue with greater intensity after the war, as racism becomes the open wound that is not healed until the trial brings the poison out.
When Kabuo's father, Zenhichi, tries to buy land from the Heines, Carl, Sr., is sympathetic and ready to help the Miyamoto family. Carl's German wife Etta is hard-hearted. Though their farm depends on Japanese workers, she thinks of them as inferior troublemakers. Carl points out how clean, disciplined, hard-working, and respectful they are. They want the land for their son, who will one day be a citizen. When she refuses to cooperate, Carl says, “We ain't right together” (Chpt. 9, p. 158), pointing out his sadness at her hateful racism. He tells her, “it don't make one bit of difference which way their eyes slant. . . People is people” (Chap. 9, p. 150). Etta remembers Carl's kindness not only to the Japanese but also to the Indians, and Carl is impressed that the Japanese help the Indian workers as well. Etta, representing ignorant prejudice, in effect frames Kabuo as the murderer of her son, insisting they are racial enemies.
There is distrust on the other side too. Hatsue's mother tries to keep her daughter from giving herself to a white man. The Americans have taken everything from them and forced them into an internment camp during the war. Fujiko says this will make her daughters more Japanese. She has had a hard life trying to live without hating herself because of racial hatred against her. She tells Hatsue, “The whites, you see, are tempted by their egos and have no means to resist” (Chpt. 14, p. 253), whereas the Japanese do not give into individual ego. Hatsue is torn, however, between being Japanese and being American. She is angry at her people for causing the war. She has been in love with the gentle Ishmael and the island she was born on. The question arises, for both Kabuo and Hatsue, whether place or blood is the basis of identity. Kabuo decides he is an American when he enlists to fight for the United States. Kabuo wins no thanks for his sacrifices. The story shows islanders complaining and gossiping about “Japs,” and both Kabuo and his attorney know the trial is about racism. Nels Gudmundsson sums up to the jury, “what I see is the same human frailty passed from generation to generation . . . We hate one another; we are the victims of irrational fears” (Chpt. 29, p. 533).
Racism exists before the war, and after the war, and certainly it is one of the causes of war. The novel shows the war destroying a whole generation of men, and necessarily, the families they come home to. What cuts across race is the crippling effect of killing and violence on the young Carl Heine, Jr., Ishmael, and Kabuo. Ishmael comes home with an amputated arm, but all the soldiers are damaged inside. Carl, Ishmael, and Kabuo lose their ability to be with other people. They become silent, moody, depressed, withdrawn. They cannot express what they have been through. Kabuo notices all the soldiers “stare past the present state of the world into a world that was permanently in the distance for them” (Chpt. 11, p. 191). The novel shows some vignettes of the war to bring home the point. Kabuo's spirit is haunted by the German boy he killed who had begged for mercy. He has samurai training, but it does not prepare him to live with this brutality. Ishmael remembers the violent landing on the Japanese held island of Betio where he combined his hatred for the enemy with a hatred for Hatsue who had hurt him. He loses belief in God when he sees men die in horrible ways. Carl, like Horace Whaley, who conducts his autopsy, survived Tarawa and the sinking of the Canton, where he watched other men drown, a fate he himself would suffer. After that, he is unable to speak to anyone. The Japanese who return from the Manzanar Internment Camp after the war are permanently affected, since they have lost their homes, livelihood, and acceptance in the community on the island. They will never be Americans, only “Japs” to their neighbors.
Fate, Accident, and Karma
There are many references to Melville and Moby-Dick in this novel, including Ishmael's name after Melville's main character. Guterson also takes up one of Melville's main themes in Moby-Dick: fate. Captain Ahab is destroyed by his sense of fate with the whale that has taken his leg. He does not think he can free himself from this destiny of destruction and takes the whole ship down with him. Many of the characters in Snow Falling on Cedars also feel or seem to be fated.
Kabuo, for instance, knows he is innocent of killing Carl Heine, but believes he is in jail as karma for killing men in the war. Carl's autopsy by Horace Whaley is a chance for him to reflect on the frailty of life, and the strange fate of Carl to survive the sinking of the Canton only to drown at home with his own boat. The many details of the corpse being dissected and the bodies blown to bits in the war dwell on the finality of death and the inability to escape this final indignity. The history of the Heines and the Miyamotos, and the piece of land that is almost Kabuo's but withheld from him every time by the Heine family is a sort of fated dance he cannot escape. His father began the fight, and when he continued to strive for the land, he ended up in jail. Hatsue knows that if Kabuo goes to war, he will not come home the same, but she has been taught by Mrs. Shigemura that character is destiny, and Kabuo comes from samurai stock. He has a sense of honor that forces him to go to war, no matter the outcome. When Kabuo looks at his face in the mirror in jail, he sees the layers of his own destiny there.
Ishmael is bitter about life and believes in fate rather than justice, almost giving in to his urge to let Kabuo die and withhold the evidence of his innocence. He is tempted like Captain Ahab to give up his free will in order to get revenge for his amputated limb. Ahab lost his leg to the whale and goes after it in the belief he can regain himself. Similarly, Ishmael feels half a man with his amputated arm, blaming this on the Japanese. He accepts that there is “blind chaos to the world” (Chpt. 30, p. 543). Nels Gudmundsson in his summing up, however, explains humans must rise above fate: “Let fate, coincidence, and accident conspire; human beings must act on reason” (Chpt. 29, p. 532). Nels tells the jurors if they do not exercise reason, they will be part of the “indifferent forces that ceaselessly conspire toward injustice” (Chpt. 29, p. 533). Ishmael hears Nels's plea and performs a moral act to save Kabuo, thus learning, “accident ruled every corner of the universe except the chambers of the human heart” (Chpt. 32, p. 585).
Though there are many tragic moments about isolated individuals, the story also demonstrates the power of community. Despite family feuds and rivalry among fishermen, Josiah Gillanders testifies that at sea there is a code where every man will help another in an emergency. He brings up the point that if the boats of Kabuo and Carl were tied up together it was a sign of their helping one another, not of foul play. This turns out to be the case. In an emergency, Carl and Kabuo, once old friends, help each other, renew their friendship, and Carl offers to sell Kabuo the land.
Carl Heine, Sr., stands for the fairness and neighborliness of the island population. On his farm, he makes friends with both his Indian and Japanese workers and wants them to succeed. Everyone seems to come together at harvest time, picking the strawberries and participating in the Strawberry Festival that unites Japanese and whites. The Strawberry Princess is always a Japanese girl who is an “intermediary” (Chpt. 7, p. 96) between groups, fostering goodwill. Ishmael's father, Arthur, founder and editor of the island newspaper, uses his position to create a liberal and fair atmosphere on the island. The Japanese leaders appreciate his influence and ask Ishmael to continue this legacy. He almost gives in to the racism out of personal bitterness, but in the end, lives up to his father's reputation for justice. Ishmael's mother, too, though a widow, is community-minded through her church and friendships. This force of unity in San Piedro prevails in the end. Ishmael makes friends with the Miyamotos and Imadas and ends his voluntary exile from other human beings.