Dear David Guterson,

I didn’t read your gripping novel Snow Falling on Cedars because it won the PEN/Faulkner Award. I didn’t read it because it’s a mystery, and I write mysteries myself.  No, I read your book because I’ve always turned to fiction to get the facts, and I wanted to learn more about the Pacific Northwest where my daughter and her boyfriend had settled.  During one of my visits in the late nineties I bought Snow Falling to read on my flight back to Newark.

To this twentieth century tourist, the Seattle area seemed progressive in the best sense of the word. The place seemed too damn hip for racism or anti-Semitism, and I figured it always had been. But reading your dramatic story of how after World War II anti-Japanese bias and post-traumatic stress skew a murder investigation made me wonder. Until I met Kabuo Miyamoto and his wife Hatsue in your novel, the Internment of Japanese-Americans was an abstraction to me and the post war reintegration of the internees into their communities something I’d literally never considered.

Reading of the Miyamotos’ struggle, I found myself wondering what life in the Pacific Northwest was like for Jews during the postwar period. We too had been foreigners. Had we also been blamed for World War II? For being different?  Kabuo and Hatsue are not the only outsiders in your novel. Ishmael, your story’s narrator and a native son, is another. Ishmael is isolated not by his ethnicity but by his war injury and experiences and by his unrequited love for Hatsue, his childhood sweetheart. Both men find strength in memories of their fathers’ cultural and ethical legacies, discoveries not lost on me when, years later, my husband and I moved Out Here and I found myself an outsider.

Phil and I left the east coast for Issaquah, Washington, a suburb of Seattle, in 2003. Although I was still writing the last two books in The Bel Barrett Mystery Series, I was planning to begin work on a historical mystery about an immigrant Jewish girl on New York’s Lower East Side. Writing about an immigrant felt appropriate because here, where I am often the only Jew in the room, I felt myself an outsider. Even as I explained Jewish customs and beliefs to people who actually knew no other Jews, I wasn’t sure I belonged here. The outsiders in Snow Falling on Cedars were much on my mind.

Very, very tentatively I began to consider setting the historical mystery I planned to write not in New York, but in Seattle when it was a frontier town. I began to research what life in the Pacific Northwest was like for those Jews who came here long before I did. Reading Snow Falling on Cedars, a novel as provocative as it is beautiful, inspired the research that eventually led to The Bones and the Book.

But that mystery is not the only novel of mine inspired by Snow Falling on Cedars. Your beautifully written descriptions of the snow, the sea, and the woodlands reinforced this former tourist’s impression that here in the Puget Sound area waterways matter. During my visits I’d seen for myself the many creeks, rivers, lakes, waterfalls and wetlands that divide the terrain and marveled at the scenic inlets, channels, coves, and bays that indent the coast.

Rivers and the ocean matter in The Garden State too. But during my lifetime, northeastern New Jersey, a place I love, has been so overdeveloped that, to tell the embarrassing truth, I never really thought of it as a part of the natural world. But years ago, staring out the window of that jet as we flew low over the notorious New Jersey Meadowlands approaching Newark, your watery tale made waves in my mind. In comparison to the sublimely beautiful San Piedro Island where Snow Falling is set, North Jersey’s familiar boggy backyard appeared more of a wasteland than usual. But with Snow Falling on my lap, I looked at the place differently.  Just as the Puget Sound hasn’t always been home to the cruise and cargo ships, ferries, and Navy installations there now, maybe the Meadowlands hadn’t always been a body drop and a garbage dump.

 Intrigued, I researched those wetlands and learned that long before there were pig farms or outlets, even before Jimmy Hoffa supposedly ended up there, the Hackensack River was an escape route for runaway slaves. Commercial vessels plied its waters, and its banks were home to many varieties of native flora and fauna. The reed-choked waterway of my childhood is slowly being reclaimed by environmentalists. The place is alive with seldom told stories. I set Hot on the Trail in the Meadowlands.

Thank you for writing a book so powerful and so beautiful that it moved me to reimagine my native state and to discover yours and my grandchildren’s.  

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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8 Comments

Filed under Coming of age story, Immigrant story, mystery

8 responses to “Dear David Guterson,

  1. Wonderful writing on one of my favorite books! – Holly

  2. I remember, when I was living in Seattle, and first learned of the Japanese Internment that took place there, in fairly recent history, I was shocked. I learned of it through a museum visit. And much like your reading of this book, the knowledge threw me.

    I lived on the eastside too, and I was always so impressed with the amount of Asians in the area. So many beautiful cultures and sub-cultures, due in large part to Seattle’s proximity to Asia.

    And then to find out about this part of Seattle’s history — it’s a good thing there are books and museums out there to document these things, and people like you to take the time to note them.

    • Glad that I’m not the only one still learning American history as an adult! So much was left out or distorted in the history books I was familiar with from grammar and high school. No wonder I thought US history was so boring I avoided taking it in college! Glad this post resonated with you Melissa.

  3. robert christensen

    Jane – Snow Falling is also one of my favorite books. It resonated so much for reasons that are perhaps the flip side of your theme – as an insider. The environment that is such a significant character in the book is both familiar and personal. The scenes of running on the beach, hiding in hollowed out trees, picking strawberries in the innocence of childhood summers are deeply embedded memories. The slow and sometimes painful awareness of how difference is viewed in a small, homogenous, and fearful community is also very familiar.
    As the story and the characters developed, the gray skies, rain, and ultimately the blanketing snow, drew us deeper into the recesses and corners of our soul – our loves, losses and prejudices – ending with that wonderful line – Ishmael’s insight that “accident ruled every corner of the universe except the chambers of the human heart.”
    Robert Christensen

    • Bob, sounds as if you have the makings of a memoir stirring in you. It would be terriffic and imagine the photos you could provide for it . . .Thanks for sharing the insider’s perspective on a shared favorite.

  4. Bill Siegendorf

    Jane…interesting to read your comments on the Meadolands/Hackensack River. I remember my grandfather taking me there. We rented a rowboat and went crabbing. Floating along in the river and creeks was an adventure and, in my head, I was off in some distant land totally isolated from home in Clifton. Thanks for reviving the memory.
    Cousin Billy

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