Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Fact of Fiction

Two weeks ago we read an article detailing the shifting labor forces exploited during the development of American agriculture.  At first reading, I hadn’t made the connection, but as I sat there in class listening to the discussion, my mind repeatedly came back to one of my favorite novels, Snow Falling on Cedars written by David Guterson. 

The story is centered around a murder, and Guterson does a masterful job of narrating the tales of all the individuals involved in the murder and the trial, and situating the complicated relationships between these characters.  The leading theory as to why the accused may have committed the murder is based on a land dispute between two families: a Japanese-American named Kabuo Miyamoto was in the process of trying to reclaim seven acres that once “belonged” to his family from his one-time friend Carl Heine, Jr. when Carl suddenly turned up dead on his boat after a night of fishing.  Carl’s father (Carl Sr.) had once negotiated a contract with Kabuo’s father (Zenhichi) in which Zenhichi leased the land for 8 years until Kabuo was of age that he might own the land, but this contract became complicated by WW2 when the Miyamotos were assigned to a Japanese internment camp.  Carl Sr. had given his word that the contract would remain valid despite the fact that Zenhichi would not be able to make the last two payments, but Carl Sr.’s wife Etta, who had always despised the deal, promptly sold the entire farm (including Zenhichi’s seven acres) to another farmer after her husband’s passing.  A few years later after Kabuo and Carl Jr. had both returned from the war, this farmer decided to sell the land.  Both Kabuo and Carl Jr. inquired about purchasing it, and Carl Jr. got the deal simply because he had made the first contact.  Kabuo vowed publicly to get the land back, and it is this outward aggression that places him as the prime suspect in Carl Jr.’s death. 

Throughout the book, Guterson draws on imagery that speaks to the powerful romanticism of the farming involved—strawberry farming.  It shapes the characters he creates, so much so that both Kabuo and Carl Jr. strive to leave their fishing days and return to the line of work in which they grew up.  Kabuo has a few lines in the book that clearly illustrate his attachment not only to the work of strawberry farming but also to the land: “’My father planted the fathers of these plants…‘We lived as children by the fruit they produced…We’ll live there.  We’ll grow strawberries.  It will be all right.  I’m going to get my farm back.’”  Carl Jr.’s wife shares similar sentiment about why her husband needed to return to the land and to farming: “It was what he’d grown up with, and the sea, despite its size, was no substitute for green fields…he would have to leave his boat for good and grow strawberries like his father.”  What we see here is a literary embodiment of the importance of sustaining a livelihood true to oneself and to one’s family.  These are not direct successions, to be sure, but they reflect the need to follow the family tradition.  The uniqueness of these “successions” lies in that both sons return to the family land and farming business after their fathers have passed away and lost the land, suggesting a stronger connection than just the trap of having to fill in as the “next generation” to keep a farm going.

The dispute over land touches on a significant issue during a specific moment in American history.  At a point when farm labor was mostly hired immigrants, it was nearly unheard of for these immigrants to then acquire their own land.  Part of this lay in the fact that a few states (Oregon in particular) enacted policy that mandated that no Japanese immigrant could legally own land, and indeed it is this policy that Guterson draws n.  Nevertheless, this promise of land is a huge draw for these immigrants, as suggested by the side story of Hatsue’s (Kabuo’s wife) mother arriving in America as an overseas bride in an arranged marriage: her family must be assured that her suitor is in a financial position to purchase land of his own before they agree to send their daughter.  Unfortunately for his Japanese characters, Guterson stresses the racism prevalent during this time period: although Carl Sr. agrees to sell seven acres to Zenhichi, he only agrees to sell the worst seven acres of his land, not the original seven requested. 

The point of all this rambling is none other than to show how the culture of agriculture and relevant agricultural policies are manifested within literature otherwise unconcerned with cultural studies.  Snow Falling on Cedars is, at its heart, a novel that deals with human relationships and a murder mystery, but the underlying theme involves the complexities of strawberry farming as a livelihood and how it shapes Guterson’s characters.  He most likely did not start the novel with the intent of exploring family farm succession or the importance of agricultural land in establishing identity, but Guterson brings just these issues to light while creating a powerful human interest tale.    

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