David Guterson, a young American author, has written two major works regarding aspects of human nature and human emotions. His first publication, a collection of short stories, entitled The Country Ahead of Us, The Country Behind addresses some of the moral dilemmas that humans face throughout their lives. His first novel, Snow Falling on Cedars, narrates the trial of a Japanese man accused of murdering a white man in the post World War II era. Throughout his literary works, Guterson uses elements of nature: land, trees, water and especially snow, as literal and metaphorical tools to develop and resolve conflicts.
David Guterson uses the same aspects and characteristics of nature in two different ways. First he describes in visual detail the literal or actual effects that elements of nature have on the characters in the story. But more importantly Guterson uses nature to convey substantial and symbolic meaning in the lives of the characters in his stories.
One of the elements of nature that Guterson uses as a tool to develop the conflicts in Snow Falling on Cedars are the strawberry fields on the island. These fields represent an important source of income for the community. Traditionally the Japanese laborers worked the fields and the white Americans owned the fields. The question of the ownership of seven acres of strawberry fields serves as the apparent motive for the murder of Carl Heine. To a local Japanese fisherman, Kabuo (accused of murdering Carl Heine), the ownership of this land promises a secure future and ultimately independence. “…she knew that Kabuo wanted a strawberry field.. nothing more than that” (Snow Falling 89). “His dream…was close to him now, his strawberry land, his happiness” (Snow Falling 456). The strawberry fields connected Kabuo to his past and symbolized a continuity of life. “My father planted the fathers of these (strawberry) plants” (Snow Falling 362).
Guterson also uses snow metaphorically to make the ownership of the strawberry fields disappear and seem unimportant in life (Snow covering the fields permitted the reader to veiw the ownership of the fields as a very materialistic and selfish thing). After the snow has fallen it acts as a purifier to all the wrong that has come of the fighting over the ownership of the fields. “Center Valley strawberry fields lay under nine inches of powder…the snow fall obliterated the boarders (of the fields)… all human claims to the landscape were… made null and void by the snow”(Snow Falling 320). The snow covered the fields; all of the fields seemed as one field. The nine inches of snow caused a visual unity of the strawberry fields. “..the world was one world”(Snow Falling 320).
The element of water is used as a paradox in Guterson’s novel Snow Falling on Cedars. Water is both the sustainer and taker of life. The damp and misty climate on San Piedro Island is the reason why the community grows and prosper off of the strawberry based economy. Without the water, and the wet and nurturing environment it provided to the island there would be no foundation for life. The ocean is also one of the key sources to the community. It provides the community with a way to make a living.
Water, the source of life in Guterson’s literary works, is also the end of life. In several of his works water is portrayed as the place where life ends. “…the wall of water rose up from behind…Carl Heine fell swift and hard against the Susan Marie’s port gunnel. His head craked open above the left ear and then he slid heavily beneath the waves”(Snow Falling 458). The tidal wave was the cause of Carl’s death; the water, this element of nature was truely responsible for the death of the fisherman. In that sense Gutersonn uses water metaphorically to represent the circle of life; the source of life, the maintenance of life, and the end of life.
Guterson uses trees as a metaphorical device to portray and predict events in his literary works. He also uses them as literal tools to develop his work, beautiful cedars and elms which are magnificent, full trees with flowing branches that are visually pleasing and familiar to his readers. In “American Elm”, one of Guterson’s short stories, trees are used as a metaphor to screen and sheild the sanitarium from the rest of the town. “Burrellville Sanatarium lay shadowed in a thicket of pines…”(Elm 118). In the town of Burrellville, the sanatarium has been isolated from the rest of the town because of the pine trees that surround the building. The trees offer protection to the sanitarium. “…the old people waited…in the light that filtered through the pines…”(Elm 118). The people who live in the sanatarium are not in touch with the outside world, but instead they are in touch with whatever the pines permit to be let through. The pines act as a metaphorical barrier; they seclude the sanatarium from forieners to it’s own world.
Evidence that trees ………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..
The most prominent element of nature that Guterson uses as a metaphorical tool to develop and resolve conflicts is snow. Throughout his novel, “Snow Falling on Cedars”, he writes about and describes the snow that falls on the small island on the Puget Sound in northern Washington. Guterson’s descriptive words about the snow generally parallel the racism that dominates Kabuo’s trial. Kabuo stands accused of murdering local fisherman, Carl Heine Jr., who fought against the Japanese in World War II. “Outside, a winter storm is brewing… the snow quietly blankets the island- much like the silent prejudice that shrouds its ‘five thousand damp souls'”(Pate 106).
From the very start of the trial Guterson unveils the presence of racism. On the first day of the trial the racism had already greatly influenced the likely outcome of the trial. “Snow fell that morning outside the courthouse windows… wind from the sea lofted snowflakes against the windowpanes.”(Snow Falling 4). Almost the entire community was already blinded by prejudice as the snow was falling on the island. “The snow blurred from vision the clean contours of the cedar hills”(Snow Falling 5). As the snow fell on the island it covered the cedars and made it very hard for anyone to see that the trial was a trial of a man, and not the trial of a Japanese man. “In the gallery the citizens stood… watching the snow lash toward them” (Snow Falling 28). Prejudice, like snow, was predetermined.
As the trial of Kabuo advances and more evidence is introduced, the thread of racism in the trial is much more vivid and evident. All of the evidence circumstantially incriminates Kabuo for murder. Again, Guterson uses snow as a metaphorical tool to develop the growing conflicts in the novel. As racism and prejudice become more and more evident the snow fall increases. “the falling snow beyond the courtroom windows… was coming (down) harder now, much harder”(Snow Falling 60). The racism that is represented by snow continues unnoticed by the people in the town. As the snow thickens no one really seems to notice the progression of the storm. “By noon, three inches (of snow) had settled on the town, a snow so ethereal it could hardly be said to have settled at all… the wind flung it sharply at their narrowed eyes and foreshortened their view of everything”(Snow Falling 170). The snow acts as a blind fold to the community; no one can see the reality of what the snow could do or how silently and unnoticed the snow could warp the trial so far from it’s intended purpose. “As the snow buries the island, Guterson’s narrative begins to reveal the community’s secret heart, the injustice that may break it in two.”(Pate 107)
Snow is used in a very descriptive manner by Guterson, as his readers are treated to many different literal forms of snow. “Hard falling”, “wind whipped”, “lashing”, “clean”, “beautiful, still, sun-dappled and silent are some of the different adjectives that Guterson utilizes to bring the recognizable reality of snow quite literally from the pages to the readers’ mind. The snow changes in these scenes in the story as Guterson tells…………………………………………………………….
Snow is also one of the elements that can also be traced through Guterson’s earlier works. In “Angels in the Snow” Guterson uses snow in the very same way that he uses snow as a metaphor in his novel. “Angels in the Snow” is a short story about the struggle for a man to maintain a truthful marriage with his wife. In this story the snow that falls on Christmas eve symbolizes the falling apart of his marriage due to unsurpassable problems. “Outside the window a light snow blew down… in the yard the grass looked sprinkled with powder”(Angels 3). Guterson weaves a tale about moralistic troubles that began in a young man’s fragile past. “Outside, the snow covered the last of the lawn. The world looked hushed, delicate and beautiful.” (Angels 7) This passage describes the delicate remembrances of the protagonist’s youthful days. And then, “outside the falling snowflakes looked larger…a low drift was forming…”( Angels 12). This statement is offered as Guterson’s main character begins to confront his past conflicts.