In Snow Falling on Cedars, the theme of racism stands out most strongly. Events, characters’ attitudes, and emotions are all directly related with the surrounding environment of racial tension, caused by war hysteria. This prejudice retains a strong hold over the people of San Piedro Island, as well as all over America at this time.
Events in the novel take place as a direct result of bigotry, such as the search for a “right handed Jap.” This comment made by Horace Whaley to Sheriff Moran, caused a search warrant to be issued, with special attention to persons of physically apparent Japanese descent. Even while in court, a supposed place of justice, racial barriers still existed. Nels Gudmundsson attempted to overcome this obstacle by his statement of “…the shape of Kabuo Miyamoto’s eyes, the country of his parents’ birth — these things must not influence your decision. You must sentence him simply as an American, equal in the eyes of our legal system to every other
American.” to the jury.
Most characters in the novel are racist against the Japanese, except Arthur Chambers, who is accused of siding with the “enemy” for contributing Japanese points-of-view into his newspaper editorials, and his son, Ishmael, who later views Japanese in a negative light. Ishmael’s change in attitude occurs because of his frustration in the failure of his pursuit of Hatsue. Etta Heine’s attitude towards the Japanese is among the worst of any character in Snow Falling on Cedars. She does not see the Japanese as an equal race, but as an evil, vengeful race with ulterior motives. Etta’s skepticism becomes obvious in the meeting between Carl, Zenhichi, and herself, through her thoughts; “he was always nodding…It was how they got the better of you–they acted small thought big”.
David Guterson developed the theme by the general condescending attitude and actions by the whites towards the Japanese. There is constant tension between characters of different races (Etta and Zenhichi), problems with interracial relationships (Ishmael and Hatsue), and a fearful, bigoted dialogue; “They’re Japs…We’re in a war with them. We can’t have spies around.” The majority of elements in the novel revolve around racial issues, as Guterson creates an important and poignant theme of a difficult era in American history.