Reading at the Crossroads

Reading at the Crossroads is an archive for columns and letters which appeared in the Terre Haute Tribune Star. I also blog here when my patience is exhausted by what I feel is irritating, irrational and/or ironic in life. --gary daily

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Location: Terre Haute, Indiana, United States

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Saturday, December 03, 2005

Snow Falling on Cedars

[gary daily col. 5 Feb. 24, 2002]

"The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who cannot read them."
-- Mark Twain


“The past is a foreign country” may be a true but snide comment on the abysmal understanding many Americans have of history. From another perspective, however, this catch phrase gets at something deep and profound. Can we ever know the past? Is it possible to walk the streets of another time in another’s shoes? What if those shoes are King George III’s silver buckled slip-ons or the 19th century brogans of the working classes?

You cannot imagine the past if you are an historian. Scholars must rely on documented evidence as they attempt to recreate those streets and shoes and an understanding of the past. This takes creativity, but it’s a professional no-no to gaze into the word processor and let imagination turn cabins into mansions, mice into men, a passing acquaintanceship into a passionate affair.

In contrast to the standard operating procedure of the historian, William Kennedy, the journalist turned novelist (Ironweed, Quinn’s Book, Roscoe), recently commented on historically based fiction. He states that such works must recognize, “that enormous distinctions exist between what is exact historically and what is authentic for the work.. . . Fiction demands the necessary falsity, the essential lie that the imagination knows is truer than what your rational self thinks is true about your experience.”

This is all in the way of preface to a few words about one of The Big Three selections of the “If All of Vigo County Read the Same Book” project. David Guterson’s novel, Snow Falling on Cedars, is one of the works readers are being asked to consider as the book all of Vigo County should read. Guterson tells a World War II story most of us have never heard or considered. It’s a story that doesn’t easily fit the unambiguous “quiet sacrifices, triumphant victory” mold we’ve come to expect when that war comes up in a personal or political context.

Snow Falling on Cedars is historical fiction close to our own lifetime’s experiences. Readers will come to this book with the movies and the monuments created and erected in honor of World War II sacrifices swimming in their memories. Even more significantly, most will know some of the real people who made the sacrifices inspiring these tributes. All of this comes together to form our personal and collective historical vision. World War II history has been fully mapped for most of us. It’s a familiar, settled, and even cozy neighborhood we visit when we are in need of object lessons on courage and sacrifice in the service of a just cause.
None of this is lost or ignored in Snow Falling on Cedars. But it is Guterson’s success in Snow Falling . . . to reveal aspects of World War II which render it a “foreign country” of the past. He takes the reader into a different and far less inspiring or cozy neighborhood than that of our conventionally agreed upon World War II memories and history.

Guterson’s imagined history, his artistry, underlines Kennedy’s observation, “that [what] the imagination knows is truer than what your rational self thinks is true about your experience.” This book leads us out of the neighborhood of what our rational self thinks and wants the whole truth of the World War II era to be. In Snow Falling . . ., familiar terrain in time shifts out of focus. This can be wrenching. Yet so expert and moving in the telling is Guterson’s novel that we cannot turn our attention away. When you finish this book you may very well feel the need to redraw your map of this era.

When we travel through works of history and literature into the foreign country that is the past, we almost always return to our homes and ourselves with a fuller understanding and appreciation of both. And if the books guiding our travels have been of real value, we return changed. Read Snow Falling on Cedars and decide for yourself what kind of journey you have taken.
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Note: In addition to being chosen as one of The Big Three books of the “If All” initiative, Snow Falling on Cedars was also picked as Indiana State University’s Summer Reading Program selection for this year. All students entering ISU in the Fall of 2002 are being encouraged to read this book over the summer.

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