Category: Historical Fiction

Little Women/The Other Alcott

Cover image for Little Women by Louisa May AlcottLouisa May Alcott / Elise Hooper

ISBN 9780451529305 / 9780062645340

“Don’t laugh at the spinsters, dear girls, for often very tender, tragic romances are hidden away in the hearts that beat so quietly under the sober gowns, and many silent sacrifices of youth, health, ambition, love itself, make the faded faces beautiful in God’s sight. Even the sad, sour sisters should be kindly dealt with, because they have missed the sweetest part of life, if for no other reason.”

Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy March live in Civil War era Boston with their mother, Marmee. Their father is away at war, and the two older girls have gone to work to support the family. Beth stays home to keep house, while little Amy is still at school. Little Women is a quiet, domestic coming of age novel that follows four very different sisters as they grow up and find their place in the world. Together they befriend their wealthy but lonely neighbour, Theodore Laurence, and his grandfather, weather sickness and loss, and face difficult choices about marriage and family in the aftermath of the war.

Cover image for The Other Alcott by Elise Hooper I first tried to read Little Women when I was about eleven years old, after receiving a boxset as a gift. I found it exceedingly boring, and put it aside after only a few chapters. I next picked it up when I was about thirteen, and utterly devoured it. Along with many a previous reader, I was charmed by Jo, vexed by Amy, and felt cheated by Laurie’s disposition at the end of the novel. After attending a reading of The Other Alcott by Elise Hooper at Brick & Mortar Books in January, I decided that is was well past time to revisit this classic.

What struck me most on this third reading was how condescending and moralizing Little Women is. It is full of asides, lectures, and reprimands that bog down the delicate characterizations and loving depiction of a family. Knowing more about the history of the novel, this is now less surprising. Alcott was induced to write the books by her publisher, who saw an untapped market for clean literature for young women. Alcott herself was not precisely a traditional woman; she was an unmarried career woman who supported her parents and siblings with her craft. And it was precisely this responsibility to care for her dependents that persuaded her to accept her publisher’s offer, and to publish not one but two installments of Little Women, and then two later sequels. In short, Alcott knew that she was pandering, but she had a family to support, so she wrote what her publisher wanted. The subtext of the book is more complicated than that, of course, but the bad taste remains.

One of May Alcott's original illustrations for the first edition of Little Women, 1868While the lecturing tone of the book is now decidedly unappealing, I was as drawn to the characters as ever. The focus is on the interactions and interplay between the sisters, though their neighbour Theodore Laurence of course plays an important role. The March sisters have a pleasingly realistic air, likely helped by their basis in Alcott’s own family. It is this fact that Elise Hooper draws on in her historical novel, The Other Alcott. The story follows Louisa’s youngest sister, May, who lives under the shadow of her fame as the inspiration for the much-hated Amy March. May aspired to be an artist, and illustrated the first edition of Little Women. But while her sister’s novel was a critical success, May’s illustrations were panned.

If Jo is the rough but shining favourite of Little Women, then The Other Alcott tries to imagine what it would be like to be the youngest sister of the person who penned this fictionalized version of herself. Hooper’s Louisa is prickly and temperamental, using her position as the family breadwinner as a right to exercise control over those she supports. Yet she has mixed feelings about her success with such pandering material, and little patience for her fans. May’s dreams of being an artist are constantly subordinated to her family responsibilities, and with little idea of how to support herself as an artist, she labours under a heavy weight of obligation to her wealthy sister. That weight is especially burdensome when the character of Amy March in Little Women reveals all too clearly how May thinks her sister must see her.

The Other Alcott follows May into Europe’s art scene at a fascinating period when the Impressionists were beginning to rock the French art establishment with their radical ideas. Women were finding ways to study art, despite prevailing ideas about the indecency of such an endeavour. So in addition to a difficult and well-drawn family tension, the novel also has a great historical backdrop to work with. Hooper occasionally inserts her historical research about the Alcotts or May’s artistic contemporaries in a way that is less than fluid, but it seems to be a stumble born mostly of enthusiasm for her subject. However, it is all this information that helps the novel form such an intriguing counterpoint to Little Women, adding context, and taking the part of the most maligned sister. And May’s own life is more interesting than anything Louisa imagined for Amy.

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Do Not Say We Have Nothing

Cover image for Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thienby Madeleine Thien

ISBN 9780345810427

“It was very modern and deeply Western to listen to music that no one else could hear. Private music led to private thoughts. Private thoughts led to private desires, to private fulfillments or private hungers, to a whole private universe away from parents, family and society.”

In the midst of China’s Cultural Revolution, Sparrow, Kai, and Zhuli enjoy a relatively sheltered existence at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, where Sparrow is permitted to teach, and his niece Zhuli is permitted to study, despite the fact that Zhuli’s parents have been designated “class enemies.” But soon the forces growing against Westernization and bourgeois occupations like musicianship will overrun the Conservatory as well. In the present day, Marie travels from Vancouver to Hong Kong to try to uncover the details of her father’s mysterious suicide there two decades earlier, and to perhaps find out what has become of Ai-Ming, the Chinese student she and her mother took in during the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square student protests. The two timelines spiral together, uncovering family secrets, and decades of contested Chinese revolutionary history.

Although Madeline Thien’s novel follows two timelines, one bears significantly more weight than the other. The past reverberates into the present, and echoes there, but the present otherwise feels much less significant to Thien’s story than the past. Marie’s first person sections feel rougher and more abrupt, less fluid and polished, less immersive than the third person narrative of the past. She seems more important as a witness to history than as a protagonist in her own right. Her mother, Kai’s wife, has no name of her own, and no backstory. The heart of the tale rests with Sparrow, and Kai, and the results of their choices, their actions, and their failures to act. What will they do to survive the revolution, and what sacrifices will they make in its name?

The novel asks many questions, among them, how does one communicate authentically when everyone is regurgitating slogans and reciting platitudes to protect themselves and their families? In Canada, Marie’s mother cannot even read a letter she receives from China without a dictionary, because she does not know the simplified written Chinese mandated by the state. Do Not Say We Have Nothing offers many alternate forms of communication, from music, to mathematics, to encoded stories, and secret records not written by the victors. However, the Chinese speakers in my book club noted that Thien’s grasp of Chinese was rudimentary, and her use of it often incorrect. The alternate forms of communication become acts of resistance, such as the copying and distribution of illicit literature, or transcribing Western music into jianpu notation to make it more accessible to a Chinese audience. Music itself becomes a loaded form of expression, because it is open to interpretation. The same piece of music can be seen as a revolutionary anthem, or a ballad for those lost in the fighting. In this way, Thien’s fictional composer Sparrow echoes the real Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich, who was repeatedly denounced and then redeemed during various waves of the Russian revolution. Several such pieces of music are referenced repeatedly, and Glenn Gould’s performances of Bach’s Goldberg Variations become the soundtrack of the story, which circles back on itself in the same way. History repeats, varies, but never fundamentally changes.

The question of how history is recorded and remembered is also fundamental to Do Not Say We Have Nothing. The Book of Records, passed down through generations and families from one steward to the next, both predates and reflects the reality that Marie is slowly uncovering as she delves into her father’s past. The protagonists of The Book of Records find themselves exiled and wandering in the desert, a fate that will eventually befall Zhuli’s parents, Swirl and Wen the Dreamer. Meanwhile, the heroine, May Fourth, takes her name from the early twentieth century movement in China that opposed Japanese encroachment into Chinese territory, a part of history almost forgotten by the characters, and largely unmentioned in the story, but which lives on in the copied and recopied page of the book.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing is slowly paced, and the level of interest was inconsistent between sections. I was also disappointed to learn that neither Thien nor her publisher took the time to ensure that her use of Chinese was correct. However the novel is an interesting portrait of how different characters react to the curtailment of free speech and creative expression under a repressive regime, and asks interesting questions about how we record and remember history.

Fall 2017 Fiction Mini-Reviews

Hey there, stranger! Yes, I know, it’s been a while. After a busy summer of travel, at the beginning of September my husband and I started the process of buying our first home.  We took possession at the end of October, and moved in November 1. It was a big change that has pretty much consumed my life for the last several months! I didn’t read as much as usual, and my writing time was eaten up by packing, packing, and more packing. Then the packing become unpacking, and things are slowly starting to get back to normal. Here are a few mini-reviews of some of what I read while I was away.

Exit, Pursued by a Bear

Cover image for Exit, Pursued by a Bear by E. K. Johnston by E.K. Johnston

ISBN  9781101994580

This YA novel is a loose modern retelling of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. Hermione Winters and her best friend Polly are newly elected co-captains of the Palermo Heights cheer leading team, heading into their senior year, and their final summer cheer camp at Camp Manitouwabing. But all of their plans for the summer are thrown off course when Herimione is drugged, raped, and left in the lake. The book is an interesting and deliberate divergence from the commonly experienced reality of many rape victims, in that Hermione enjoys a supportive family, and is helped by police and counselors. However, she faces controversy in the community, and the wrath of her ex-boyfriend, Leo, who blames her for what happened. Although the identity of Hermione’s assailant is unknown, this is not really a who-dunnit. Rather, it is an emotional chronicle of the consequences of rape, further magnified by the fact that anytime Hermione encounters a boy who was at camp, she must face the idea that he could be her rapist. The biggest standout of this book is the strong female friendship depicted between Hermione and Polly, who echoes Shakespeare’s Paulina.

Love and Other Consolation Prizes

Cover image for Love and Other Consolation Prizes by Jamie Ford by Jamie Ford

ISBN 9780525492580

This is Ford’s third historical novel, this time set in Seattle during the 1909 Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition. Ford opens on the better remembered 1962 fair, and uses it to echo and reflect the main action of 1909. The plot was inspired by a fascinating newspaper clipping from the AYP Expo, advertising the fact that an orphan boy was one of the raffle prizes at the fair. The fate of the real boy is unknown, but in his novel, Ford imagines what might have become of a young half-Chinese boy named Ernest, whose winning ticket is sold to the madam of an infamous brothel. Raised in a Catholic orphanage, Ernest comes to the red light district as the temperance movement is surging in the city, and finds himself caught between the Japanese house girl, Fahn, and Madam Flora’s stubborn daughter, Maisie. As usual with Jamie Ford, I was most fascinated by the carefully incorporated local history. This seems to be his passion, and I often wonder what would happen if he tried his hand at non-fiction. (Disclaimer: I received access to an Advance Reader’s Copy of this book through the library where I work.)

The Turner House

Cover image for The Turner House by Angela Fluornoyby Angela Fluornoy

ISBN 9780544705166

Fluornoy’s debut novel is a complex family tale that follows how the thirteen Turner siblings must grapple with what to do with the house on Yarrow Street where they grew up after their mother is too old to live alone any longer. Fluornoy focuses on the oldest sibling, Charles, aka Cha-Cha, and the youngest, Lela, separated by more than twenty-three years in age, and eleven siblings. Cha-Cha is in therapy after having claimed to have seen a ghost, and Lela is struggling mightily to hide a gambling addiction. Flashbacks illuminate the history of their parents, Francis and Viola Turner, who came North to Detroit for the promise of a better life than the one the South offered its black citizens. Thematically, the book deals broadly with place, both the importance of the Turner family home, and the history that resides there, and also the city of Detroit. Fluornoy also addresses the legacy of addiction within and between generations of a family, and how families understand mental health and addiction more generally. The plot is slow moving, but the highlight is the complex family dynamic amongst the many siblings.

Homegoing

Cover image for Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi by Yaa Gyasi

ISBN 97811019947142

“You are not your mother’s first daughter. There was one before you. And in my village we have a saying about separated sisters. They are like a woman and her reflection, doomed to stay on opposite sides of the pond.”

Effia and Esi are half-sisters who have never met. First divided by their mother’s secrets, they will soon be divided by an ocean when Esi is sold into slavery and shipped across the Atlantic. Effia remains in Ghana, sold in marriage by her step-mother to the British governor of the Cape Coast Castle, where slaves are held in cramped dungeons before being loaded onto ships bound for America. In present day America, Marjorie wrestles with her identity as a Ghanaian immigrant to the United States, while Marcus struggles to complete his PhD knowing that many young black men of his generation are dead or in jail, and that only chance has kept him from the same fate. In a sweeping family saga, Yaa Gyasi follows the sisters’ bloodlines over hundreds of years, one child from each generation, tracing the impact of colonialism and slavery across the centuries, between Ghana and America.

Homegoing opens in what is now Ghana in the mid-1700s, and concludes in America in the present day. Extremely ambitious in scope, it employs an unusual structure that alternates between the two bloodlines, with a new narrator for each generation, meaning that Homegoing has a total of fourteen point of view characters. This requires the reader to settle into a new perspective every twenty or thirty minutes. However, two factors keep this structure working. First is seeking the connection back to the previous story, to find out what has become of the mother or father since we left them behind. And next is looking ahead for the new character’s romantic interest, a necessity in order for the family tree structure of the novel to function, making every chapter a love story in its own way. The chapters are not quite short stories, though each has a distinct narrative arc. But the full function of the novel comes in the layering and juxtaposition of each subsequent piece, until they are all taken together.

I was personally most drawn into the chapters set in Africa, perhaps because the story was less familiar. The American side of the story traces the family from plantations to convict leasing to Jim Crow to the Civil Rights era, and through the modern day, history that I have at least a decent grasp on. I knew much less about tribal conflict between the Asante and Fante, and how the British exploited it to fuel the slave trade. Another fascinating chapter, featuring Effia’s great-granddaughter, Abena, recounts the introduction of cocoa farming in Ghana. It remains one of Ghana’s chief agricultural exports to this day. However, the chapter that gave me the biggest emotional punch in the gut was about Kojo—Esi’s grandson—and his wife, Anna, who are living free in Baltimore when the Fugitive Slave Act is introduced in 1850.

Homegoing is a multigenerational epic that walks the fine line between hope, anger, and despair as the tales of Esi and Effia’s descendants unspool. Each chapter is a slice of life set against the background of a particular historical era, be it the Great Migration or the War of the Golden Stool. The full effect of the novel is such that in the end, the reader knows more about Marcus and Marjorie’s families than they do, the fall out of slavery and colonialism depriving them of their history and culture. The book is a potent reminder that the history is always there, just beneath the surface, and that the story has always been waiting to be told, though the voice of the victors has long drowned it out.

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The Lost History of Stars

Cover image for The Lost History of Starsby Dave Boling

ISBN 978-1-61620-417-4

“Living on the veldt taught nothing about the real value of space, creating the illusion that it was limitless. The great open distances of our land, which had once felt like a warm invitation, now stretched out on the other side of the camp’s fence like a cruel taunt.”

Fourteen-year-old Lettie and her Dutch Afrikaner family have a farm deep in the South African veldt when the Boer War comes to their doorstep. The British Army has instituted a scorched earth policy to root out the guerilla fighters who have resisted British attempts to lay claim to the Dutch South African republics, and the valuable natural resources that have been discovered there. With her father, grandfather, and brother still out on commando, Lettie, her mother, and her younger siblings are rounded up and marched to a concentration camp, while their farm is looted and burned. Inside the barbed wire of the camp, Lettie continues trying to fight the war with her own small acts of defiance, while also finding a way to survive the horrifying conditions with her hope for the future intact.

The Lost History of Stars is a story about a forgotten tragedy. Dave Boling was tracing his family roots, when he discovered that his grandfather was a soldier in the Boer War (1899-1902). However as he learned more about the conflict, the idea of telling a story about his family history was quickly abandoned in favour of bringing the story of what happened to the Boer women and children back into the historical memory. Although there may not have been genocidal intent, the British concentration camps in South Africa were the forerunners of the Nazi concentration camps that now define that term in our collective consciousness. More than twenty-thousand Boer women and children died of disease and malnutrition in the camps, in addition to the many uncounted black Africans, who were interned separately.

Speaking about his novel in public appearances, Dave Boling has revealed that The Lost History of Stars went through many drafts before emerging in its current form. The first was a sprawling narrative of war in the line of his first novel, Guernica. The next focused in on Lettie, her mother Susannah, her aunt Hannah, and Bina, the native woman who worked for them. All four characters remain in the final draft, but Lettie is the only point of view character. The decision to make Lettie the sole narrator, while focusing the scope of the story, also removes most of Bina’s point of view, as native Africans were held in separate camps. Bina’s main role in the final version of the story is as a source of wisdom for Lettie, but we learn little about her own ordeal.

One of my worries going into this story was that it would feature an ill-conceived romance between Lettie and Tommy Maples, one of the British soldiers assigned to guard the camp. Fortunately, the relationship between Lettie and Maples is not overly romanticized. She has complicated feelings about him that evolve and change over the course of the book, but Boling does not depict it as anything other than an unequal relationship. Maples is not generally a villainous figure, and he can even sometimes be sympathetic, but it is clear that he and Lettie can never really be friends given the circumstances under which they meet, and a romance could not come to any good end.

Lettie is a heart-felt narrator, who depicts both realistic trauma, and the ability to hold onto hope in trying circumstances. Her voice forms the heart of the The Lost History of Stars. In addition to shedding light on a forgotten tragedy, the central conflict, based on far-flung wars for natural resources, has a continued contemporary relevance.

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Circling the Sun by Paula McLain

Mischling by Affinity Konar

Seven Stones to Stand or Fall

Cover image for Seven Stones to Stand or Fall by Diana Gabaldon by Diana Gabaldon

ISBN 978-0-399-59342-0

Seven Stones to Stand or Fall contains seven works of short fiction set in the world of Outlander, including two that have never been previously published. The stories stretch across the span of the main series, filling in gaps here and there. The earliest story is a prequel set in 1740, covering Jamie Fraser and Ian Murray’s time as mercenaries in France. The latest recounts the story of how Roger Wakefield was orphaned during the London Blitz. The pieces range in length from long short story to meaty novella, and deal largely with secondary characters.

Diana Gabaldon is a very detail-oriented person, and her introduction helpfully contextualizes all of the stories, providing information about where they fit in the series timeline, which characters they deal with, and where they were originally published (if applicable). Given that the main series now stretches to eight books, and with several Lord John books on the market, this introduction will prove crucial for folks like me, who have not read the other books in a while.

For my own sanity, I threw over the arrangement of the novellas in the book, and used the information provided in the introduction to read the stories in chronological order. (If you’d like to do this as well, the order is: Virgins, A Fugitive Green, The Custom of the Army, A Plague of Zombies, Besieged, The Space Between, and A Leaf on the Wind of All Hallows.) This had the distinctly beneficial effect of allowing me to keep events and people relatively straight, and also bracketed the book with the two stories I was most interested in reading. The only downside to this order was that things got a little Lord John heavy in the middle, with three stories in a row based on his exploits.

Although many of these stories were originally published in anthologies where they would theoretically be read as standalones, many of them make most sense in the context of the series as a whole. However, my personal favourite in the collection was A Fugitive Green, one of the two original stories, and one which I think stands alone better than many of the others. It recounts the exploits of Minnie, a teenage forger living in Paris with her English father, who brought her into the family business. Readers of the series will know that Minnie eventually finds herself married to an English lord, and A Fugitive Green reveals just how that unlikely event came about.

Given the range of the timeline and characters covered in Seven Stones to Stand or Fall, it is unsurprising that the stories vary widely in tone and content. Some touch more on the supernatural elements of the series, and others are more pure historical fiction. Lord John’s stories tend towards military exploits and mysteries. In short, there is a little something for everyone, with the caveat that I don’t think this is how I would recommend introducing anyone to the world of Outlander. The main series is a much better place to start.

Mischling

Cover image for Mischling by Affinity Konarby Affinity Konar

ISBN 9780316308106

“Because you had no power over the fact that I was born, you took from me what I was born with—the person who was my love, the half that made me entire—and now I am lessened into this dull thing, a divided person who will live forever, wandering in search of some nothing, some nowhere, some no-feeling, to mend my pain.”

Stasha and Pearl Zamorski are twelve-year-old Polish-Jewish twins who arrive at Auschwitz in 1944 with their mother and grandfather, their father already missing and presumed dead at the hands of the Gestapo. Here they are singled out by Dr. Josef Mengele, who would become known to history as the Angel of Death. Inside Mengele’s “Zoo,” he collects genetic oddities, including giants and dwarves, albinos and people with heterochromia iridium, and most especially twins. The inmates of the Zoo receive special privileges including more food, and are allowed to keep their hair and clothes. The price is the terrible experiments carried out upon their bodies, the purpose of which they are never given to understand. How does someone survive the guilt and pain of such an experience, let alone carve out a new existence in the aftermath of liberation?

Structurally, Mischling is divided into two parts, with alternating chapters narrated by Stasha and Pearl. Part one deals with their arrival and internment at Auschwitz, while part two takes place after the camp is liberated by the Russians in January 1945. The first part is perhaps the stronger of the two, and Konar admits to struggling with the second half, throwing out the draft at least three times while trying to get it right. Stasha and Pearl have voices that are at once similar and distinct. Stasha has the more active imagination, and she sinks into it in order to survive, making up stories and creating games that help them carry on, but which also lend her sections a surreal quality. By contrast, Pearl has a quiet but more honestly introspective voice, less distanced from reality. Konar’s prose is lyrical throughout. Although genetically identical, the girls are distinct people, and it seems that Mengele’s experiments can only tear their twinhood further asunder.

Konar’s narrative provides a measure of the horrors of Mengele’s human experiments, and yet does not focus on them. Mischling is more about Stasha and Pearl’s internal lives during their internment, focusing on how they cope and survive under such adverse, inhumane conditions. Yet many passages are undeniably horrific, and are often drawn from the real memories of Auschwitz survivors, particularly the accounts Eva Mozes Kor. Perhaps the most horrifying confession comes from Dr. Miri, a Jewish doctor forced to collaborate with Mengele. She admits to performing abortions on female inmates after discovering that Mengele was using pregnant women for vivisection. Her character is based on Dr. Gisella Perl. Through Stasha and Pearl, we see different ways of coping with the reality of such circumstances, though in Stasha’s case this often means obscuring reality in order to survive. After receiving an injection from Mengele, she becomes convinced that she is now deathless, and is therefore concerned only with how Pearl, who has not been made deathless, will survive.

Mengele himself is a character who is made large by his absence from most of the narrative. Yet he is strikingly horrific when he does appear, not just because of his brutality, but because of the nauseating contrast between his avuncular manner with the children one moment, immediately followed by terrible violations of their bodies and minds. In part two, he disappears from the narrative entirely—in real life he disguised himself as a farmhand before fleeing to South America—and yet continues to cast shadow, as Stasha becomes obsessed with tracking him down and exacting revenge. But the fact that he appears little on the page allows Stasha and Pearl to come into focus, their voices dominating the narrative in an effort to seize back some measure of control.

Mischling is a Holocaust novel that depicts horror couched in beautifully crafted prose. For some, Konar’s careful wordsmithing will distance them from the narrative, and the atrocities it unveils. For others, the juxtaposition will only serve to make the truth that much more poignant as it explores what it means to come of age in the midst of such a tragedy.

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Snow Falling on Cedars

Cover image for Snow Falling on Cedarsby David Guterson

ISBN 0-679-76402-X

“She was of this place and she was not of this place, and though she might desire to be an American, it was clear, as her mother said, that she had the face of America’s enemy and would always have such a face.”

It is 1954, and Japanese-American World War II veteran Kabuo Miyamoto has been charged with the murder of fellow fisherman and veteran Carl Heine. His trial begins in the midst of a snow storm that has struck the town of Amity Harbour, on the island of San Piedro off the coast of Washington State. Reporting on the trial is Ishmael Chambers, who inherited the small local paper from his father when he returned from the war. Carl was a solo gill-netter fisherman, and his body was pulled from the ocean, caught in his own nets, after the boat was found drifting off the coast on a foggy September morning. In the grip of the snow storm and the trial, the islanders are forced to face old grudges and deep seated prejudices as the evidence against Kabuo mounts.

Ishmael’s coverage of the trial is complicated by the fact that the accused’s wife, Hatsue, was his first love before the war, and he has never gotten over losing her. Indeed, he still entertains shameful fantasies of winning her back, even as her husband’s life hangs in the balance. Ishmael lost his arm during the war, fighting in the Pacific Theater, and it has bitterly tainted his perception of the island’s Japanese-American residents, even as he clings obsessively to his feelings for Hatsue. However, this is not the only unfinished business being raised by the trial. Before the war, the Miyamoto family had entered into a clandestine arrangement with Carl Heine’s father to purchase seven acres of strawberry land, which would be placed in Kabuo’s name once he came of age, due to the fact that first generation Japanese immigrants could not own land. But they were interned before they could finish their payments, and when Carl Sr. died while his son was away at war, his wife took the opportunity to sell the entire farm.

Snow Falling on Cedars opens on Kabuo’s trial, though it takes some pages for David Guterson to reveal what he is charged with. Indeed, it is in general a novel that peels back in slow layers, as one witness after another takes the stand, and flashbacks are interleaved with the present moment. The pacing is slow and steady. The witnesses give their testimony when their time comes to take the stand, but through the limited omniscient narrator, we are also able to see the things they are thinking about, but not saying. Some are entirely insignificant to the plot—the coroner for example, thinks about how, during the autopsy, he noticed that the deceased’s penis was much larger than his—but other omissions are much more consequential. The coroner does not mention in his testimony that he told the sheriff that the blow to Carl Heine’s head reminded him of wounds he saw delivered by kendo-trained Japanese soldiers during the war, a comment that may have primed the sheriff to suspect Miyamoto.

What fills in the slower pacing of the novel is the ambience of the Pacific Northwest island setting, despite the fact that the story takes place in the midst of an uncharacteristic snow storm. San Piedro is a fictional island that would be part of the San Juans if it existed, but it draws inspiration from Guterson’s home, Bainbridge Island, in the Puget Sound just off Seattle. Guterson pays great attention to detail as he describes both salmon fishing and strawberry farming, the two main industries on the island. The beaches and cedar forests serve as the sites of Ishmael and Hatsue’s budding but forbidden romance. What begins as innocent child’s play on the beaches must take covert shelter among the ancient trees when they become adolescents. Though fewer scenes take place there, the Japanese internment camp at Manzanar, California, feels visceral and immediate. Manzanar is the more literal incarnation of the dark undercurrent that runs beneath the more romantic, pastoral portrayal of Amity Harbour.

An obvious comparison can be made between Snow Falling on Cedars and To Kill a Mockingbird, a novel Guterson regularly taught as a high school English teacher with a budding novel in his desk drawer. But neither Nels Gudmunson, the lawyer, nor Ishmael Chambers, the journalist, is Atticus Finch, at least not as he appeared in To Kill a Mockingbird. They might perhaps be closer to the earlier incarnation of the character recently revealed in Go Set a Watchman. And the narrative is complicated by the fact that Kabuo is not obviously innocent, even though prejudice certainly played a role in his arrest. For most of the story, Kabuo refuses to speak to anyone, even his lawyer, about what really happened that night out on the water, and so the reader, too, is left in the dark, piecing together the clues along with the jury, even as we enjoy a more omniscient perspective, privy to some characters’ internal thoughts.

Snow Falling on Cedars is somewhat of a murder mystery, even though it is more ponderously paced than most pager-turners of that genre. Rather, it is more concerned with how human nature shapes such an investigation and prosecution, subtly or not so subtly dictated by preconceived notions and the weight of the past. The truth is slowly revealed, even while the reader is left with the impression of how easily it could have been buried forever.

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The Gods of Heavenly Punishment by Jennifer Cody Epstein

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

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