Fiction — print. Vintage, 1995. 460 pgs. Purchased.
Winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award, Guterson’s novel is the most recently published novel on my list for the Classics Club. Off the coast of Washington on San Piedro Island in 1954, Japanese-American Kabuo Miyamoto is accused of murdering a local fisherman named Carl Heine Jr., who was found entangled in the drift of his boat out at sea. The accusation relies on the still raw history between Carl Jr. and Kabuo, between the Caucasian residents and those of Japanese descent who came under suspicion following the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.
“This a murder trial, after all, and snow or no snow, we have got to keep that foremost in our hearts and minds.” (pg. 317)
Kabuo’s father was making under-the-table mortgage payments to Carl Sr. on seven acres of land because non-American born people of Japanese descent are not allowed to own land in the country. The payments stop, however, when Kabuo and his family are interned by the United States government at Manzanar. When Kabuo returned after service to his nature during the war, the widow of Carl Sr. has sold the land to Ole Jurgensen for significant profit and refuses to acknowledge the claim Kabuo and his family had to the land. For years, Kabuo pines for the land determined to right the wrong committed against his family while Carl Jr. longs to purchased back the land his mother sold without consulting him first.
Ole Jurgensen’s decision to sell the land to Carl only hours before Kabuo has the chance to approach him appears to be the perfect motive for murder. Yet Kabuo and his wife, Hatsue Imada, insist Kabuo would never hurt anyone and call upon the town’s only reporter Ishmael Chambers, a Marine Corps veteran who once loved Hatseu but now hates all “Japs” after losing an arm fighting at the Battle of Tarawa, to help prove Kabuo’s innocence.
The narrative is centered on the trail with unobtrusive flashbacks to the past to help explain a particular witness’ motives or biases towards Kabuo and his family. The courtroom drama and the past take turns moving the story forward, and I particularly liked the decision to set the novel years after the war to show how prejudice and hysteria can linger long after the physical manifestations are gone.
“Let us so live in this trying time that when it is all over we islanders can look one another in the eye with the knowledge that we have behaved honorably and fairly. Let us remember what is so easy to forget in the mad intensity of wartime: that prejudices and hatred are never right and never to be accepted by a just society.” (pg. 184-185)
There is one incredibly thought-provoking and poetic conversation between Kabuo and Carl Jr. where they discuss how difficult it is to set aside hatred after war. Carl Jr. explains how he cannot reconcile his memories of playing with Kabuo as children because he was trained by the US Army to immediately and ruthlessly kill all Japanese people. He seems to think this is only a problem that he possess, but Kabuo immediately informs him that he, too, killed during his time fighting for the Americans in World War II.
In his case, however, the Nazis he was instructed to kill looked like Carl Jr. Evil is, therefore, not associated with any particular race or appearance, and neither Carl Jr. nor he should be allowed to hate their neighbor simply because they look like the enemy. In summary, this conversation sounds obvious enough, but it is written in such a poetic way that speaks to the novel and the experiences of its characters as a whole.
Perhaps the only aspect distracting from the beauty of this novel is the sudden and unnecessary intrusion of sexual scenes into the narrative. Certainly such scenes help to explain the relationship between Ishmael and Hatsue, but I am not convinced it was necessary to explain the impotence of a lawyer on the case. Unless Guterson’s point was to attribute the lawyer’s incompetence to his impotence?
Overall, though, I adored this novel and the way it explores both the rather hidden history of Japanese internment during World War II and the affects hysteria and prejudice can have on a community long after a horrific event occurs. So glad I added this one to my list.