David Guterson and His Use of the Theme of Nature
David Guterson, a young American author, has written two major works
regarding aspects of human nature and human emotions. His first publication, a
collection of short stories, entitled The Country Ahead of Us, The Country
Behind addresses some of the moral dilemmas that humans face throughout their
lives. His first novel, Snow Falling on Cedars, narrates the trial of a
Japanese man accused of murdering a white man in the post World War II era.
Throughout his literary works, Guterson uses elements of nature: land, trees,
water and especially snow, as literal and metaphorical tools to develop and
David Guterson uses the same aspects and characteristics of nature in
two different ways. First he describes in visual detail the literal or actual
effects that elements of nature have on the characters in the story. But more
importantly Guterson uses nature to convey substantial and symbolic meaning in
the lives of the characters in his stories.
One of the elements of nature that Guterson uses as a tool to develop
the conflicts in Snow Falling on Cedars are the strawberry fields on the island.
These fields represent an important source of income for the community.
Traditionally the Japanese laborers worked the fields and the white Americans
owned the fields. The question of the ownership of seven acres of strawberry
fields serves as the apparent motive for the murder of Carl Heine. To a local
Japanese fisherman, Kabuo (accused of murdering Carl Heine), the ownership of
this land promises a secure future and ultimately independence. …she knew
that Kabuo wanted a strawberry field.. nothing more than that (Snow Falling 89).
His dream…was close to him now, his strawberry land, his happiness (Snow
Falling 456). The strawberry fields connected Kabuo to his past and symbolized
a continuity of life. My father planted the fathers of these (strawberry)
plants (Snow Falling 362).
Guterson also uses snow metaphorically to make the ownership of the
strawberry fields disappear and seem unimportant in life (Snow covering the
fields permitted the reader to veiw the ownership of the fields as a very
materialistic and selfish thing). After the snow has fallen it acts as a
purifier to all the wrong that has come of the fighting over the ownership of
the fields. Center Valley strawberry fields lay under nine inches of
powder…the snow fall obliterated the boarders (of the fields)… all human
claims to the landscape were… made null and void by the snow(Snow Falling
320). The snow covered the fields; all of the fields seemed as one field. The
nine inches of snow caused a visual unity of the strawberry fields. ..the
world was one world(Snow Falling 320).
The element of water is used as a paradox in Guterson’s novel Snow
Falling on Cedars. Water is both the sustainer and taker of life. The damp and
misty climate on San Piedro Island is the reason why the community grows and
prosper off of the strawberry based economy. Without the water, and the wet and
nurturing environment it provided to the island there would be no foundation for
life. The ocean is also one of the key sources to the community. It provides
the community with a way to make a living.
Water, the source of life in Guterson’s literary works, is also the end
of life. In several of his works water is portrayed as the place where life
ends. …the wall of water rose up from behind…Carl Heine fell swift and
hard against the Susan Marie’s port gunnel. His head craked open above the left
ear and then he slid heavily beneath the waves(Snow Falling 458). The tidal
wave was the cause of Carl’s death; the water, this element of nature was truely
responsible for the death of the fisherman. In that sense Gutersonn uses water
metaphorically to represent the circle of life; the source of life, the
maintenance of life, and the end of life.
Guterson uses trees as a metaphorical device to portray and predict
events in his literary works. He also uses them as literal tools to develop his
work, beautiful cedars and elms which are magnificent, full trees with flowing
branches that are visually pleasing and familiar to his readers. In American
Elm, one of Guterson’s short stories, trees are used as a metaphor to screen
and sheild the sanitarium from the rest of the town. Burrellville Sanatarium
lay shadowed in a thicket of pines…(Elm 118). In the town of Burrellville,
the sanatarium has been isolated from the rest of the town because of the pine
trees that surround the building. The trees offer protection to the sanitarium.
…the old people waited…in the light that filtered through the pines…(Elm
118). The people who live in the sanatarium are not in touch with the outside
world, but instead they are in touch with whatever the pines permit to be let
through. The pines act as a metaphorical barrier; they seclude the sanatarium
from forieners to it’s own world.
Evidence that trees …..
The most prominent element of nature that Guterson uses as a
metaphorical tool to develop and resolve conflicts is snow. Throughout his
novel, Snow Falling on Cedars, he writes about and describes the snow that
falls on the small island on the Puget Sound in northern Washington. Guterson’s
descriptive words about the snow generally parallel the racism that dominates
Kabuo’s trial. Kabuo stands accused of murdering local fisherman, Carl Heine
Jr., who fought against the Japanese in World War II. Outside, a winter storm
is brewing… the snow quietly blankets the island- much like the silent
prejudice that shrouds its five thousand damp souls'(Pate 106).
From the very start of the trial Guterson unveils the presence of racism.
On the first day of the trial the racism had already greatly influenced the
likely outcome of the trial. Snow fell that morning outside the courthouse
windows… wind from the sea lofted snowflakes against the windowpanes.(Snow
Falling 4). Almost the entire community was already blinded by prejudice as the
snow was falling on the island. The snow blurred from vision the clean
contours of the cedar hills(Snow Falling 5). As the snow fell on the island it
covered the cedars and made it very hard for any one to see that the trial was a
trial of a man, and not the trial of a Japanese man. In the gallery the
citizens stood… watching the snow lash toward them (Snow Falling 28).
Prejudice, like snow, was predetermined.
As the trial of Kabuo advances and more evidence is introduced, the
thread of racism in the trial is much more vivid and evident. All of the
evidence circumstantially incriminates Kabuo for murder. Again, Guterson uses
snow as a metaphorical tool to develop the growing conflicts in the novel. As
racism and prejudice become more and more evident the snow fall increases. the
falling snow beyond the courtroom windows… was coming (down) harder now, much
harder(Snow Falling 60). The racism that is represented by snow continues
unnoticed by the people in the town. As the snow thickens no one really seems
to notice the progression of the storm. By noon, three inches (of snow) had
settled on the town, a snow so ethereal it could hardly be said to have settled
at all… the wind flung it sharply at their narrowed eyes and foreshortened
their view of everything(Snow Falling 170). The snow acts as a blind fold to
the community; no one can see the reality of what the snow could do or how
silently and unnoticed the snow could warp the trial so far from it’s intended
purpose. As the snow buries the island, Guterson’s narrative begins to reveal
the community’s secret heart, the injustice that may break it in two.(Pate 107)
Snow is used in a very descriptive manner by Guterson, as his readers
are treated to many different literal forms of snow. Hard falling, wind
whipped, lashing, clean, beautiful, still, sun-dappled and silent are some
of the different adjectives that Guterson utilizes to bring the recognizable
reality of snow quite literally from the pages to the readers’ mind. The snow
changes in these scenes in the story as Guterson
Snow is also one of the elements that can also be traced through
Guterson’s earlier works. In Angels in the Snow Guterson uses snow in the
very same way that he uses snow as a metaphor in his novel. Angels in the Snow
is a short story about the struggle for a man to maintain a truthful marriage
with his wife. In this story the snow that falls on Christmas eve symbolizes
the falling apart of his marriage due to unsurpassable problems. Outside the
window a light snow blew down… in the yard the grass looked sprinkled with
powder(Angels 3). Guterson weaves a tale about moralistic troubles that began
in a young man’s fragile past. Outside, the snow covered the last of the lawn.
The world looked hushed, delicate and beautiful. ( Angels 7) This passage
describes the delicate remembrances of the protagonist’s youthful days. And
then, outside the falling snowflakes looked larger…a low drift was forming…
( Angels 12). This statement is offered as Guterson’s main character begins to
confront his past conflicts.