Published in 1994, Snow Falling on Cedars, by David Guterson, became an instant bestseller and also won the 1995 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. In 1999 it was adapted into a film that was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Cinematography. In 2007 it became a stage play by Kevin McKeon, and also received its world premiere at Seattle\’s Book-it Repertory Theatre that same year.
The book has been frequently challenged, banned, or restricted in several school systems in the United States and Canada for profanity and sexual content; the American Library Association’s list of most-challenged books of 2000-2009 ranked it at #33.
Set on the fictional San Piedro Island in the Puget Sound region of Washington State in 1954, the plot revolves around a murder case in which Kabuo Miyamoto, a Japanese-American, is accused of killing Carl Heine, a fisherman in the small community. Carl\’s body had been found trapped in his own net, his water-damaged watch having stopped at 1:47. The trial, held during a snowstorm that grips the entire island, occurs in the midst of deep anti-Japanese sentiments following World War II. Covering the case is the editor of the town\’s one-man newspaper, the San Piedro Review, Ishmael Chambers, a US Marine veteran who lost an arm in World War II at the Battle of Tarawa. Conflicted between a hatred for the Japanese, his love for Kabuo\’s wife, Hatsue, and his conscience, he wonders if Kabuo is truly innocent.
In 2001 the novel was restricted in South Kitsap, Washington, over complaints regarding the book\’s sexual content and profanity. In 2004, it was challenged but later retained in the advanced English classes in Modesto, California.
In 2008 the Coeur d\’Alene, Idaho School District faced a heated challenge after some parents said the book, along with five others, should require parental permission for students to read them.
During the meeting, Assistant Superintendent Hazel Bauman told parents not to quote sections of the book that weren’t “family-friendly” because the meeting was being broadcast on local cable networks. “I am aware of the irony,” she added. Mary Jo Finney, one of the parents who raised objections to the book, said that stressed her point: “It’s adult reading for minors.” Finney claimed the book was “too explicit for high school readers, who don’t have the life experience or sophistication to read controversial scenes in context.”
The school board voted 3-2 to keep the book as an option for junior-year English classes and that teachers may assign it or make it optional reading. Parents and students who object can ask for another assignment.
The Richland, Washington high schools retained the novel in college-level classes in a 2011 challenge. Teachers said the book was selected for the curriculum 12 years ago because it deals eloquently with the issues of prejudice.
In Ontario, Canada, the Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board pulled the award-winning novel from high school library shelves after one parent complained about its sexual content. Snow Falling on Cedars was part of an 11th-grade English course at Father Michael Goetz Secondary School in Mississauga.
Officials were quick to say they have not banned the novel, but that it won\’t be accessible to students until a review by a board committee is complete.
Critics of the board\’s move said the content paled in comparison to online and other media that high school students are exposed.
\”Removing thoughtful fiction from the school library is like taking mashed potatoes out of the cafeteria when the problem is French fries at McDonald\’s,\” said Shari Graydon, who has published two books on media literacy.
A spokesperson for PEN Canada, a group of writers that advocates for freedom of expression, stated that pulling the book on the basis of one complaint “is pandering to the most sensitive of society.”
The flood of media available today, particularly online, has made some school administrators paranoid, but it is vitally important to give students the experience of considering how our fears and prejudices prompted us to imprison our own citizens, while at the same time ironically boasting how America was “saving the world for democracy” in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Similar sentiments towards Arab citizens swept the nation after the events of September 11, 2001.
Therein is the power of the written word- to learn from the mistakes of yesterday. That, more than any other, is argument enough that censorship is the antithesis of reason and rationality.
Had cooler heads not prevailed, tempered by the intellectual hindsight offered by time and stories like Snow Falling on Cedars, history could very well have been doomed to repeat itself, turning tragedy into tyranny once again.
For a complete list of titles covered and more information about the Banned Books Awareness and Reading for Knowledge project, please visit www.deepforestproductions.com
Sources: Wikipedia, Amazon, American Library Association, Bellingham Herald, Toronto Star, TriCity Herald (Washington), Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom, Spokesman Review
© 2011 R. Wolf Baldassarro/Deep Forest Productions