Thursday, June 1, 2017

"Snow Falling on Cedars," A Reaction Paper

by Pa Rock

When I first began writing this blog ten years ago this coming November, one of my primary goals was to use it as a collection point for all of the writings and writing scraps that I had accumulated over a lifetime of learning and expressing myself.

At the time I began The Ramble, I was a civilian social worker at Luke Air Force Base near Phoenix.  I lived by myself and had lots of time on my hands - particularly in the evenings.   My filing cabinets contained stuff I had written as a college student while in pursuit of five different degrees (two bachelors and three graduate), musings from working as a freelance writer for some local newspapers and a couple of national historical and genealogical publications, several unpublished short stories and plays, a bit of poetry, and a multitude of things that I had written during my days as one of the owners of a start-up newspaper.

Over the years most of those "scraps" have found their way into The Ramble where they now remain safely tucked away for posterity to deal with.  But writing scraps are a bit like dealing with the mange - they just seem to keep cropping up.  This past weekend while excavating boxes of stored treasure from the garage, I came across some college records from my days in Social Work Graduate School at the University of Missouri (1997-1999).  There were two which especially brought back nice memories, both papers, book reviews, written for Dr. Marjorie Sable in a social work "cultures" class.  Both will eventually be preserved in this blog.  (Dr. Sable, a great instructor, later went on to become the head of the department.)

When my grandson, Boone, visited in my home a few weeks ago, he told me that he had homework to finish when he returned later in the day to his home in southwest Missouri.  I asked him what the assignment was, and Boone replied that he had to write a "reaction paper" to Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward.  I smiled, thinking his teacher was being a bit pretentious, upgrading what we used to refer to as a "book report" to the exalted status of a "reaction paper."  Later, when I found these two papers that I wrote for Dr. Sable, my own pomposity was pricked a bit when I realized that those also had been "reaction papers!"

I hope that Boone enjoyed reading and writing about Looking Backward as much as I did with Snow Falling on Cedars, a novel by David Guterson.

Reaction to Snow Falling on Cedars
by Rocky G. Macy

September 24, 1997

The winter storm that swept across San Piedro could do little to add to the coldness that already enveloped the hearts of many of the island's residents.  As the snow deepened outside, so too did the emotional discomfort of those islanders who were huddled within the courthouse for the murder trial of Kabuo Miyamoto.  Feelings of prejudice and bigotry that had, for the most part, lain dormant for the decade since the end of World War II began to reemerge as witness after witness provided testimony that told far more about the state of humanity on San Piedro that it did to illuminate the facts surrounding the death of a fisherman.

Carl Heine had been found dead three months before in the gill nets that dragged from his boat, the nets by which he made his living.  He had suffered a blow to the head and drowned after falling overboard.  Kabuo Miyamoto was arrested for Carl's murder a couple of days later as a result of evidence found aboard his boat and a plausible motive based in a soured land transaction between the Heine and Miyamoto families.  The sheriff was also influenced by Kabuo's impenetrable face, describing his eyes as being those "of a man with concealed emotions, the eyes of a man hiding something."  As the long awaited trial began to unfold, so did the true nature of some of the islanders.

San Piedro was an island inhabited by two distinct cultures - American and Japanese.  Although the Japanese had lived on the island for several generations, their status was still somewhat less than that of their Caucasian neighbors.  Japanese attending the trial of Kabuo Miyamoto, for instance, instinctively knew to sit as a group in the back of the courtroom.  Dealings between Japanese and the other Americans were characterized by an almost exaggerated formality and politeness on the part of the Japanese, a deference that seemed to be expected by both communities.

The older residents of the island provided the sharpest cultural contrasts.  Etta Heine, Carl's mother, was open in her contempt of the "Japs."   Her husband had sold land to Kabuo's father prior to the war.  After her husband died and the Japanese residents of the island had been relocated to Manzanar leaving the Miyamoto family unable to make their last payment on the land, Etta seized the opportunity and sold the land to a neighbor for a handsome profit.  What she saw as "good business," Kabuo saw as dishonesty.  Etta's nature even rankled members of the Caucasian community.  The trial judge in a private conversation with the sheriff referred to her as "hateful."  If Etta had been less prejudiced and more honest, Kabuo and his family would have been living peacefully on their strawberry farm that fateful night years later.  In fact, if she hadn't rushed to sell all of her property while Carl was fighting in the war, Carl might have also been on his own strawberry farm that fateful evening and wouldn't have died at sea.

Helen Chambers, another older resident of San Piedro, was on the opposite end of the spectrum from Etta.  She was so liberal in her outlook as to be certain that the arrest of Kabuo was racially inspired and that the verdict in the case would be also.   Helen was the widow of Arthur Chambers, San Piedro's first newspaper publisher.  Arthur's printed views on the unfair treatment of the island's Japanese at the outset of World War II angered elements of the White community and put the existence of his newspaper at risk due to lost advertisements and canceled subscriptions.

The culture of the Japanese was, in part, to blame for the predicament in which Kabuo found himself.  Kabuo, knowing that there was still much lingering resentment of Japanese after the war, lied to the sheriff initially because he felt that to be honest would invite his arrest.  Later, in court, his stiff demeanor and proud bearing were taken as contempt by many who watched him facing his accusers.  He would have generated more sympathy among the observers and the jurors if he had dissolved his inscrutable attitude and revealed the emotions that he was concealing.

Hatsue, Kabuo's wife, was also a picture of quiet reserve except in her conversations with Ishmael Chambers, the island's current newspaper editor and the son of Arthur and Helen Chambers.  Ishmael and Hatsue had been in love when they were in high school.  Their love had been secret and had caused the young couple a great deal of inner-torment.  Hatsue, in particular, had struggled with cultural expectations.  As a girl she had listened to her mother's admonitions that it was one thing to live among the Caucasians, and quite another to become entwined with them.  Fujiko, Hatsue's mother, found out about Hatsue's involvement with Ishmael Chambers shortly after the Japanese were relocated to Manzanar and forced her daughter to end the relationship.

Ishmael Chambers had gone off to World War II despondent over the loss of Hatsue.  He lost an arm, and several buddies, during an especially bloody battle in the South Pacific.  Ishmael's war experiences coupled with his rejection by Hatsue fostered feelings of subtle hatred toward the Japanese, feelings that he had not experienced while growing up on San Piedro.  When Ishmael first saw Hatsue after the war she had already married Kabuo and had a baby.  She expressed sympathy to Ishmael of the loss of his arm, and he replied coldly, "The Japs did it.  They shot my arm off.  Japs."

Ishmael Chambers was presented with the ultimate moral dilemma when he discovered evidence that would likely prove Kabuo's innocence.  Withholding the evidence could lead to a sentence of life imprisonment or death for Kabuo and free Hatsue for the attentions of the lonely and still unmarried Ishmael, or at least serve as a sort of twisted "pay back" to Hatsue for her abandonment of Ishmael many years before.  Presenting the evidence, on the other hand, would guarantee that Hatsue would always be beyond his grasp.

Ishmael finally came forth with his evidence and Kabuo was freed.  Kabuo, however, was not the only one set to experience release.  The other islanders would also be freed of some of the feelings and emotions that the death of Carl Heine and trial of Kabuo Miyamoto had stirred.  Racism and bigotry would still play a part in things on the island to be sure, but in most respects thos feelings would be concealed beneath a coverlet of neighborly hospitality where hopefully they would begin to wither and die.  San Piedro was set to resume life after the storm.

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