Jordan Carstairs

Dr. Dee Horne

English 485

March 13 2017


Conference Presentation

The Racial Awareness from Narrative Structure in Snow Falling on Cedars

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 Prezi PowerPoint

Slide One of Prezi PowerPoint:

In David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars, narrative structure plays a pivotal role in how the story is told as well as how key components of the story get revealed. The main plot of Snow Falling on Cedars is the trial of Kabuo Miyamoto, a Japanese-American man who has been accused of murdering Carl Heine Jr. over a presumed land dispute. This trial unfolds using two primary narrative structures: flashbacks and the limited point of view. Donna Neumann illustrates how these two narrative structures help allow this book to have multiple genres by stating, “Guterson provides a murder mystery, unrequited love, a touch of history, and some of the best drawn, most fascinating characters quietly flourishing in their environment” (112). Another element of writing that Guterson relies on is the use of setting and how it is incorporated throughout the novel. Using these three tools of writing, Guterson effectively creates a courtroom-genre, bildungsroman, tragedy, and love story that possesses a powerful message towards post-war racism.


Slide Two of Prezi PowerPoint:

Guterson unknowingly has the reader to constantly switch sides in regards to whether Kabuo is guilty or not. With the implementation of a diverse narrative structure throughout Kabuo’s trial, Guterson shows the racial and discriminatory profiling that was being used towards Japanese-Americans. Without the use of setting, limited point of view, and the flashbacks provided the book would fail to create a coming-of-age story towards the characters surrounding the trial and to create an effective portrayal of post-war racism. My argument will stem around the idea that post-war racism is present on both sides of American and Japanese culture, and how Guterson utilized a courtroom setting to create a further development of post-war racism.


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Refer to monologue.


Slide Four of Prezi PowerPoint:

The snowstorm during Kabuo’s trial plays an interesting role as throughout the trial it continues to impact the people involved through transportation and communication, as well as the physical appearance of the courthouse. However, a significant impact the snowstorm has on the plot’s narrative structure is allowing Ishmael to have a moment of realization about what his life has become and where it should go. The snowstorm provides Ishmael to interact with Hatsue again when he picks up Hatsue and her father who are stranded on the side of the road. This moment allows Ishmael to reflect on his present self and recognize the impact war has had on him in terms of his racial profiling. An example of Ishmael’s negligence can be seen when he encounters Hatsue at the grocery store and says to her, “They Japs did it, … They shot my arm off. Japs” (250). This is contrasted at the end of the book when Ishmael’s change is revealed from him informing Hatsue that it took him a day to show her the freighter documents (337).


Slide Five of Prezi PowerPoint:

Does nature act as a form of healing for Ishmael? Do the memories of being at peace while playing outside with Hatsue remain as a neutral/equal territory in regards to race and culture?


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Looking at the courthouse’s physical transformation can create the argument that it has slowly transformed into a dark and barren place, potentially similar to Carl or Kabuo’s fishing ship during the foggy night of Carl’s death. This, in many ways, can be seen as symbolic because when the trial initially started it focused more on evidence and elements of a murder mystery. However, as the trial/book develops the elements of racism and prejudice appear. This can be seen during Etta Heine’s cross-examination as she begins showing significant amounts of post-war racism with one line stating, “He’s proud, I just spat on him, he’s pretending it didn’t happen that way. Blink away, she thought” (98). Despite this blatant use of racism, this chapter signifies more than just American racism. From here the two cultures begin to split as later on in a flashback of Hatsue’s, Mrs Miyamoto says to Hatsue, “…living among the hakujin [the white man] has tainted you, made your soul impure” (151).


Slide Seven of Prezi PowerPoint:

The main purpose that nature has had in Snow Falling on Cedars is its symbolic attempt of creating equality. Ishmael and Hatsue’s tree is a perfect example of this by having two kids who are raised under different rules and cultural norms and have been forced in a situation where they must believe the other is bad use this tree to escape the prejudice and enjoy the feeling of equality. This can be intertwined with the snowstorms purpose during the trial as Ishmael re-enters the tree and realizes that he shouldn’t need to come back here. The cedar tree is also physically placed in between both Ishmael and Hatsue’s house, and done so in a symbolic way. By having this tree representing equality and by placing the tree in between a contrasting of cultures it allows a strong message to be presented in terms of prejudice and racial profiling.


Slide 8 of Prezi PowerPoint:

Refer to monologue.


Slide 9 Prezi PowerPoint:

The book starts off with no real context to any characters back story. Each character approaches the stand and proceeds to be questioned; through the questions they are asked, the story, and their character, develop. By doing this, Guterson restricts important information about what actually happened and instead focuses on the backstory of how the trial came to be. This is crucial in developing the racial tones that grow more present as the story goes on. An example of this can be seen in the prosecutor, Alvin Hooks where in chapter two his cross-examination with Art Moran is drastically contrasted with Hooks’ last questioning with Kabuo in chapter 28.  The differences in Hooks’ cross-examination are clear as he treats Kabuo worse than just a guilty man, Hooks treats him as a Japanese soldier.


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The limited point of view also develops an element of mystery throughout this book. By having each character come up to the stand one at a time, it creates a specific and biased perspective for the reader to experience. Because of this, unknowingly, the reader becomes subject to bias also as they do not know what character is telling the truth. The bias remains unknown until the conclusion where Kabuo’s innocence is discovered. Because of this, the reader is forced into a situation where they go back and forth on what side to believe. Because of this switching of sides, the reader, at times, agrees with the perspective of a racist/prejudice side.


Slide 11 Prezi PowerPoint:

In regards to entering a post-war racist mindset, I do not mean that the reader consciously knows they are doing this. What I do mean is that after reading the majority of the book both sides of the trial show moments of racism/prejudice as both sides feel as the opposing is guilty or that the trial is unfair due to it being run by white America. In the defence of both parties, Kabuo’s backstory does become suspicious as the court finds out about the reason for his accused vengeance, along with hearing about Kabuo’s extensive knowledge and ability in kendo fighting and affiliation with war and killing. However, all of these assumptions do come across as prejudice towards Kabuo and Hatsue as they know that Kabuo is innocent, yet they are entering the courthouse with the scales being tipped toward the American party.

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Refer to monologue.

Slide 13 Prezi PowerPoint:

Character development is complimented thoroughly with Guterson’s use of flashbacks. The narrative style of flashbacks allows characters to build a more unorthodox bildungsroman. An example of this can be seen in Ishmael as he is first introduced as an adult, but do to the use of flashbacks the reader is able to see Ishmael’s development as a child. Also by going back in time, Guterson creates a slow build up on the racial dispute between the American and Japanese citizens of San Piedro Island by having both the younger versions of Ishmael and Hatsue experience or be a part of this prejudice. Daniel McKay summarizes this idea very well in his article “Captive Memories” when he states, “As different social classes, ethnicities, ages, and dialects occupy the witness stand, the picture that emerges takes on an American resonance by its very plurality, yet the individuals are frequently at odds with one another, and the story they speak of, without vocalizing it necessarily, is one of suspicion and hostility charting their inevitable course toward persecution.” (643-669).

Slide 14 Prezi PowerPoint:

Further developing on Guterson’s use of flashbacks, it allowed him to create certain/specific characteristics around characters that would normally be hard to do. By describing characters while they do their jobs, like Art and Abel when they are at the crime scene or when they discover Carl’s body, and how the characters react to these situations, allows for a more intimate feel in understanding their character. Also by having the characters actions shown/described it also reveals negative qualities that they may possess. An example of this can be seen, once again, by Etta Heine when Zenhichi Miyamoto comes to discuss land with Carl Sr. only to be interrupted consistently by Etta and often treated in a racist manner.

Slide 15 Prezi PowerPoint:

As many of the narrative structures have done prior, flashbacks continue to develop the mysterious atmosphere within the courthouse. By having characters come to the stand it becomes up to them to tell this story; in doing so, a bias is created. An example, if Kabuo were to come up to the stand and be questioned by Nels Gudmundsson, Kabuo would presumably appear innocent. However, if Etta or Carl’s wife Susan Marie were to be questioned by the prosecutor, Alvin Hooks, Kabuo were more than likely appear to have killed Carl; with this, a balance must be created between both sides of the trial. Once again, Daniel McKay illustrates this idea by stating, “To a large degree, the discriminations that take place on a day-by-day basis derive from standards of social inclusion and exclusion traceable to the wartime profiling of the Japanese, a process that conflated their racial and national characteristics. The capacity of the San Piedro residents to think outside this conflation is so limited that the outcome of the trial appears to be a foregone conclusion, and the narrative takes on a sense of convergence, such that one cannot consider individual characters without likewise measuring the extent to which each confronts or avoids their part in the process” (643-669).


Question: How does Guterson use the narrative structure of flashbacks to create a more poetic ending? (Character development, love, justice, etc.)


Works Cited