Whatcom Reads

Historical storytelling with David Guterson


It’s been years since I read Washington author David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars, but I’m thinking now might be the perfect time to re-read the tome—and not just because a whole lot of other people are doing the same thing.

The reason it’s fresh in my mind—as well as the minds of many others in the area—is that it’s the latest Whatcom Reads! pick.

Since 2008, the Whatcom County Library System (WCLS) has created what amounts to a countywide book club by picking a book and encouraging those who live nearby to read (or re-read) it. In return, the WCLS schedules numerous events related to the book and its contents, and finishes off the experience by inviting the author to come visit.

In addition to getting people discussing this year’s pick, the associated events also delve into a number of issues relating to heady subjects such as race and war.

The book, which takes place on the fictional San Piedro Island in the northern Puget Sound region in the mid 1950s, focuses on a murder case and a trial in which a Japanese American, Kabuo Miyamoto, is accused of killing Carl Heine, a white fisherman who was, once upon a time, his childhood friend.

Thrown into the volatile mix of the murder trial are past resentments relating to anti-Japanese sentiments following World War II and the subsequent internment of those of Japanese ancestry, an epic snowstorm, love affairs and land disputes.

Snow Falling on Cedars is not necessarily a happily-ever-after tale, but it makes up for that by getting readers interested in a period of time many of us didn’t live through, and does so with believable characters, a fascinating backstory and a palpable sense of place.

At two events happening Sat., Feb. 9, Guterson’s book will really come to life. The first event, “Reconciling the Past: The History, Literature and Ethics of Japanese Removal,” takes place at 2pm at the Blaine Library. Helmed by Professor Robert Keller, the discussion will attempt to answer a few questions, examples of which include: Why did some fervently advocate in favor of interment while others voiced their opposition? How has the memory of internment affected treatment of Arab-Americans following 9/11? How do we view civic rights amidst security crises today? 

“The Bainbridge Island Japanese American and Canadian Japanese Experience” will be the focus of the second gathering, which starts at 4:30pm at the Sumas Library. A few members of the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Community—the same community said to be the inspiration for Guterson’s book—will be on hand at the panel discussion to share their stories. Speakers will include Kay Sakai Nakao (who was 21 years old and the first Bainbridge Islander married in the Minidoka concentration camp), Lilly Kitamoto Kodama (who was seven years old when she was imprisoned behind barbed wire), and Mary Woodward, the daughter of Walt and Milly Woodward, who published the Bainbridge Review, in which they defended their Japanese American neighbors.

In addition to these illuminating talks, a traveling photo exhibit, discussions and workshops with David Guterson, screenings of the film adaptation of the novel and more are on the lineup through early March. If you haven’t yet read the book—or if you can’t quite remember how it ends—pick up a copy and get to it. I know I will.

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