Snow Falling on Cedars | Study Guide

David Guterson

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Snow Falling on Cedars | Symbols



Land and owning land serve as symbols of belonging, of connection to a place. The Miyamoto family works hard to buy land the government says they cannot legally own. The government thinks Japanese do not belong in America, and unless they somehow gain citizenship, land ownership is forbidden. But they do belong. Carl Heine Sr. values the Miyamotos as neighbors and helps them get their land, but the government intervenes again with the internment process. Etta Heine doesn't like the Miyamotos and deprives them of their land. Kabuo fights to get it back.

Some characters are defined by their connection to the land. Both Carl and his father give loving care to their plants. Kabuo steals back two of his family's strawberry plants to show Hatsue what his father planted. Hatsue has seen plenty of strawberry plants before, as Kabuo knows, but these are significant to him because they come from his land. Hatsue wants Kabuo to move on, to forget the land, but he cannot. The land is about more than providing for his family; it is a symbol of what his family worked for and was denied: a chance to put down roots. Note that even Kabuo's ship is called The Islander; he names his ship after what he wants to become, a fully accepted and welcomed member of the island community.

In contrast, some of the antagonistic or troubled characters are separated from the land. Etta Heine didn't like strawberry farming and now lives in a small apartment in town: the farmland was just a source of income for her. Kabuo is troubled because he can't have the land he was promised. Ishmael observes his parents' garden but shows no particular interest himself, whether because of the loss of his arm or his general numbness.

The Cedar Tree

Ishmael and Hatsue have a special cedar tree where they meet, kiss, and talk as teenagers. Cedar is a native tree in the Pacific Northwest that produces wonderfully fragrant wood. Both Ishmael and Hatsue comment on the smell of the tree and each other, all of which mingles together with their desire.

Their cedar tree becomes a symbol of their youth: they found it together when they were much younger, and they returned to it often as teenagers. It becomes their secret space where they can shut out the world, where they can talk and be intimate without fear of discovery. For Ishmael, it is a place where they can avoid thinking about the dangers of the world: disapproving parents and the imminent threat of war. Hatsue never manages to let those fears go entirely. Near the end of the book, Ishmael symbolically gives away the tree: "Some much younger people should find this tree, hold to it tightly as their deepest secret." By letting go of the tree, Ishmael signals he is ready to let go of the past and move into the present.

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