Snow Falling on Cedars

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On San Piedro, an island of rugged, spectacular beauty in Puget Sound, a Japanese-American fisherman stands trial for murder. Set in 1954 in the shadow of World War II, Snow Falling on Cedars is a beautifully crafted courtroom drama, love story, and war novel, illuminating the psychology of a community, the ambiguities of justice, the racism that persists even between neighbors, and the necessity of individual moral action despite the indifference of nature and circumstance. ...
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Overview

On San Piedro, an island of rugged, spectacular beauty in Puget Sound, a Japanese-American fisherman stands trial for murder. Set in 1954 in the shadow of World War II, Snow Falling on Cedars is a beautifully crafted courtroom drama, love story, and war novel, illuminating the psychology of a community, the ambiguities of justice, the racism that persists even between neighbors, and the necessity of individual moral action despite the indifference of nature and circumstance.

Winner of the 1994 Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Award

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Barnes & Noble Review
December 1998

The New York Times Book Review declared Jonathan Harr's revealing true story, A Civil Action, "a page-turner. So rich and vivid that it becomes a good deal more than a simple, interesting case study." The critically acclaimed bestseller tells the true story of an obsessed young lawyer who gives up just about everything to fight two prestigious law firms and two of the nation's largest corporations on behalf of the families and citizens of Woburn, Massachusetts, whose loved ones died because they drank the water.

Harr has crafted a tale that demonstrates how truth can be more interesting than fiction. Describing a lawsuit that lasted nine years, A Civil Action reveals that even with the best lawyers and evidence on the victims' side, justice can be elusive, especially when it involves malfeasance by powerful corporations. Read how the unlikeliest of heroes emerges when a young, hotshot, Porsche-driving lawyer takes the case, initially with hopes of winning millions, and ends up nearly losing everything, including his sanity, as he is led to confront connected and powerful interests who will do anything to win.

A Civil Action is considered by many to be the best book ever written on the legal system.

Randall Short
This book "chronicles a lawsuit brought in 1986 by eight families in Woburn, Massachusetts, against Beatrice Foods and W.R. Grace. The plaintiffs charged that toxic waste on properties owned by the giant corporations had infiltrated town drinking water and caused an outbreak of leukemia."
Time Magazine
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
First-novelist Guterson presents a multilayered courtroom drama set in the aftermath of the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII. Oct.
Library Journal
In the 1970s, it became painfully apparent that the town of Woburn, MA, was the site of a leukemia cluster. No one, however, initially linked the illness to the water supply or to the chemicals dumped there by the town's two largest corporations. As determined parents began to delve into the cause of their childrens' deaths, they found legal help in the form of the self-assured, no-holds-barred Jan Schlichtmann. What began as a pesky assignment for Schlichtmann becomes a compelling and intricate web of justice, money, big business, and emotion underscored by the notion that this could happen anywhere. Harr's skillful empathy in bringing the listener along on this roller coaster of emotion is enhanced by Alan Sklar's smooth handling of the many legal and medical terms. This best seller will be popular everywhere, even in this lengthy unabridged format. [The recent feature film starring John Travolta received critical acclaim.--Ed.]--Susan McCaffrey, Haslett H.S., MI Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Dennis Dodge
A 1954 murder trial in an island community off the coast of Washington state broadens into an exploration of war, race, and the mysteries of human motivation. The dead man, Carl Heine, his accused murderer, Kabuo Miyomoto, and the one-man staff of the local newspaper, Ishmael Chambers, were all scarred by their experiences in World War II but resumed normal-seeming lives upon their return to the fishing and strawberry-farming community of San Piedro in Puget Sound. While fishermen Heine and Miyomoto set about raising families, the newspaperman remains alone and apart, alienated by the loss of an arm and a childhood love, who married Miyomoto. Chambers comes upon information that could alter the verdict of the trial if presented or change his own life if suppressed, creating a private trial as momentous as the public one, with the outcome as much in doubt. Guterson's first novel is compellingly suspenseful on each of its several levels.
Gilbert Taylor
Eyeing readers who flock to fictionalized courtroom drama, Harr bets that dramatized nonfiction can compete for their attention. The case he selected, the standard cancer-caused-by-chemicals charge, is less about the validity of the suit than about the snarling courtroom combat between lawyers. While he spoke with both sides, he spoke most with the plaintiffs' maniacally energetic lawyer, Jan Schlichtmann, who took on the case of families who blamed their leukemia tragedies on city water polluted by two deep pockets, W. R. Grace and the Beatrice Corp., whose experienced trial attorneys usually appear in the narrative whenever Schlichtmann meets them while handling the business of the trial. Schlichtmann is definitely, and defiantly, a high-wire act, as he rejects offer after offer even as his creditors crowd closer to his accountant. Drawn as vividly as a character in a mystery novel, Harr's hero walks the precipice of bankruptcy, pushed toward the edge and pulled back by a carnival of forces, not the least his own ambition and brashness. Entertaining insight to litigation that any law-minded reader will follow from first filing to last appeal.
Randall Short
This book "chronicles a lawsuit brought in 1986 by eight families in Woburn, Massachusetts, against Beatrice Foods and W.R. Grace. The plaintiffs charged that toxic waste on properties owned by the giant corporations had infiltrated town drinking water and caused an outbreak of leukemia."
-- Time Magazine
From the Publisher
"Compelling . . . heart-stopping. Finely wrought, flawlessly written."-the New York Times Book Review "
Luminous . . . a beautifully assured and full-bodied novel [that] becomes a tender examination of fairness and forgiveness . . . Guterson has fashioned something haunting and true."-Time
"Haunting . . . A whodunit complete with courtroom maneuvering and surprising turns of evidence and at the same time a mystery, something altogether richer and deeper."-Los Angeles Times
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780606121408
  • Publisher: San Val, Incorporated
  • Publication date: 9/26/1995
  • Series: Vintage Contemporaries Series
  • Format: Library Binding
  • Pages: 460
  • Product dimensions: 10.34 (w) x 2.24 (h) x 1.25 (d)

Meet the Author

David Guterson is the author of the novels East of the Mountains, Our Lady of the Forest, The Other, Ed King, and Snow Falling on Cedars, which won the PEN/Faulkner Award; a story collection, The Country Ahead of Us, the Country Behind; and Family Matters: Why Homeschooling Makes Sense. He has three forthcoming books: a memoir, Descent, from Vintage in 2013; a new story collection, Problems with People, from Knopf in 2014; and a book of poems, Songs for a Summons, from Lost Horse Press in 2014. He lives in Washington State.

Biography

Like many great writers before him, David Guterson draws on the rich local culture of the Pacific Northwest for inspiration in creating unforgettable characters and settings. Guterson credits many influences on his writing, beginning with his father, Murray Guterson, a distinguished criminal defense lawyer: His father's example taught him first and foremost to choose a career he would love, which also meant making positive contributions to the world.

Guterson was intrigued by the narrative of his father's cases. He often sat in on trials, but never felt the urge to become an attorney. When he started college, after one week in a creative writing class, he decided to become a writer. He eventually studied under Charles Johnson (author of Middle Passage), developing his ideas about the moral function of literature, and concluded that it is the obligation of writers to present moral questions for reflection.

As Guterson honed his writing skills, he investigated a variety of jobs that would afford him the time to practice his craft. He finally chose to become an English teacher, mainly because he wanted to surround himself with great books and authors. He moved to Bainbridge Island in Puget Sound, teaching at the local high school, writing short stories, and freelancing as a journalist for Sports Illustrated and Harper's magazine.

During his years as a teacher, Guterson discovered another major influence in To Kill a Mockingbird. "No other book had such an enormous impact [on me]" he has said of Harper Lee's splendid Southern classic. "I read it 20 times in 10 years and it never got old, only richer, deeper and more interesting." He admits freely to borrowing many of the novel's structural and thematic elements for his own 1994 tour de force, Snow Falling on Cedars.

Although it was not his first book (he had previously published a collection of short stories and a treatise on home schooling), there is no denying that Snow Falling on Cedars -- ten years in the making and a true labor of love -- put Guterson on the literary map. Set in 1954 on an island off the coast of Washington State, the novel tells the intertwined stories of an interracial love affair and a murder trial that divides a community still haunted by its shameful wartime past. Critics responded ecstatically, calling it "haunting" (L.A. Times), "compelling...heartstopping" (The N.Y. Times Book Review), and "luminous" (Time magazine). The book went on to win the 1995 Pen/Faulkner Award; and the following year, Guterson was named to Granta's list of Best Young American Novelists.

Far from prolific, Guterson writes slowly and with great deliberation, averaging a book every four to five years. Blessed with almost preternatural descriptive skills, he is known as a writer's writer, polishing sentences to pristine perfection and creating stories of elegiac grace. He is disarmingly candid about the difficulties of his craft, claiming that each literary endeavor brings with it a paralyzing fear of failure that slows the process even further. "It doesn't matter who you are, how many awards you've won, how popular you are, or how much critical acclaim you've had," he has said. "When it comes time to sit down and write the next book, you're deathly afraid that you're not up to the task." Fortunately for his many fans, Guterson's misgivings seem totally unfounded!

Good To Know

When he won the 1995 Pen/Faulkner award for Snow Falling on Cedars, Guterson quickly recognized the reclusive Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird for his success. He wrote to Lee asking her to come to the award ceremony in Washington, D.C., but being a highly private woman, she didn't attend.

Snow Falling on Cedars was adapted for a 1999 film of the same title, directed by Scott Hicks and starring Ethan Hawke. The movie received an Academy Award nomination for cinematography.

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    1. Hometown:
      Bainbridge Island in Puget Sound
    1. Date of Birth:
      May 4, 1956
    2. Place of Birth:
      Seattle, Washington
    1. Education:
      M.A., University of Washington

Read an Excerpt

At the intersection of Center Valley Road and South Beach Drive Ishmael spied, ahead of him in the bend, a car that had failed to negotiate the grade as it coiled around a grove of snow-hung cedars. Ishmael recognized it as the Willys station wagon that belonged to Fujiko and Hisao Imada; in fact, Hisao was working with a shovel at its rear right wheel, which had dropped into the roadside drainage ditch.

Hisao Imada was small enough most of the time, but he looked even smaller bundled up in his winter clothes, his hat pulled low and his scarf across his chin so that only his mouth, nose, and eyes showed. Ishmael knew he would not ask for help, in part because San Piedro people never did, in part because such was his character. Ishmael decided to park at the bottom of the grade beside Gordon Ostrom's mailbox and walk the fifty yards up South Beach Drive, keeping his DeSoto well out of the road while he convinced Hisao Imada to accept a ride from him.

Ishmael had known Hisao a long time. When he was eight years old he'd seen the Japanese man trudging along behind his swaybacked white plow horse: a Japanese man who carried a machete at his belt in order to cut down vine maples. His family lived in two canvas tents while they cleared their newly purchased property. They drew water from a feeder creek and warmed themselves at a slash pile kept burning by his children—girls in rubber boots, including Hatsue—who dragged branches and brought armfuls of brush to it. Hisao was lean and tough and worked methodically, never altering his pace. He wore a shoulder strap T-shirt, and this, coupled with the sharp-honed weapon at his belt, put Ishmael in mind of the pirates he'dread about in illustrated books his father had brought him from the Amity Harbor Public Library. But all of this was more than twenty years ago now, so that as he approached Hisao Imada in the South Beach Drive, Ishmael saw the man in another light: hapless, small in the storm, numb with the cold and ineffective with his shovel while the trees threatened to come down around him.

Ishmael saw something else, too. On the far side of the car, with her own shovel in hand, Hatsue worked without looking up. She was digging through the snow to the black earth of the cedar woods and throwing spadefuls of it underneath the tires.

Fifteen minutes later the three of them walked down the road toward his DeSoto. The Willys station wagon's rear right tire had been perforated by a fallen branch still wedged up under both axles. The rear length of exhaust pipe had been crushed, too. The car wasn't going anywhere—Ishmael could see that—but it took Hisao some time to accept this truth. With his shovel he'd struggled defiantly, as if the tool could indeed change the car's fate. After ten minutes of polite assistance Ishmael wondered aloud if his DeSoto wasn't the answer and persisted in this vein for five minutes more before Hisao yielded to it as an unavoidable evil. He opened his car door, put in his shovel, and came out with a bag of groceries and a gallon of kerosene. Hatsue, for her part, went on with her digging, saying nothing and keeping to the far side of the car, and throwing black earth beneath the tires.

At last her father rounded the Willys and spoke to her once in Japanese. She stopped her work and came into the road then, and Ishmael was granted a good look at her. He had spoken to her only the morning before in the second-floor hallway of the Island County Courthouse, where she'd sat on a bench with her back to an arched window just outside the assessor's office. Her hair had been woven then, as now, into a black knot against the nape of her neck. She'd told him four times to go away.

"Hello, Hatsue," said Ishmael. "I can give you a lift home, if you want."

"My father says he's accepted," Hatsue replied. "He says he's grateful for your help."

She followed her father and Ishmael down the hill, still carrying her shovel, to the DeSoto. When they were well on their way down South Beach Drive, easing through the flats along the salt water, Hisao explained in broken English that his daughter was staying with him during the trial; Ishmael could drop them at his house. Then he described how a branch had hurled down into the road in front of him; to avoid it he'd hit his brake pedal. The Willys had fishtailed while it climbed the snapped branch and nudged down into the drainage ditch.

Only once, driving and listening, nodding politely and inserting small exclamations of interest—"I see, I see, yes, of course, I can understand"—did Ishmael risk looking at Hatsue Miyamoto in the rectangle of his rearview mirror: a risk that filled all of two seconds. He saw then that she was staring out the side window with enormous deliberation, with intense concentration on the world outside his car—she was making it a point to be absorbed by the storm—and that her black hair was wringing wet with snow. Two strands had escaped from their immaculate arrangement and lay pasted against her frozen cheek.

"I know it's caused you trouble," Ishmael said. "But don't you think the snow is beautiful? Isn't it beautiful coming down?"

The boughs in the fir trees hung heavy with it, the fence rails and mailboxes wore mantles of it, the road before him lay filled with it, and there was no sign, anywhere, of people. Hisao Imada agreed that it was so—ah, yes, beautiful, he commented softly—and at the same moment his daughter turned swiftly forward so that her eyes met Ishmael's in the mirror. It was the cryptic look, he recognized, that she'd aimed at him fleetingly on the second floor of the courthouse when he'd tried to speak to her before her husband's trial. Ishmael still could not read what her eyes meant—punishment, sorrow, perhaps buried anger, perhaps all three simultaneously. Perhaps some sort of disappointment.

For the life of him, after all these years, he couldn't read the expression on her face. If Hisao wasn't present, he told himself, he'd ask her flat out what she was trying to say by looking at him with such detached severity and saying nothing at all. What, after all, had he done to her? What had she to be angry about? The anger, he thought, ought to be his own; yet years ago now the anger about her had finished gradually bleeding out of him and had slowly dried up and blown away. Nothing had replaced it, either. He had not found anything to take its place. When he saw her, as he sometimes did, in the aisles of Petersen's Grocery or on the street in Amity Harbor, he turned away from seeing her with just a little less hurry than she turned away from seeing him; they avoided one another rigorously. It had come to him one day three years before how immersed she was in her own existence. She'd knelt in front of Fisk's Hardware Center tying her daughter's shoelaces in bows, her purse on the sidewalk beside her. She hadn't known he was watching. He'd seen her kneeling and working on her daughter's shoes, and it had come to him what her life was. She was a married woman with children. She slept in the same bed every night with Kabuo Miyamoto. He had taught himself to forget as best he could. The only thing left was a vague sense of waiting for Hatsue—a fantasy—to return to him. How, exactly, this might be achieved he could not begin to imagine, but he could not keep himself from feeling that he was waiting and that these years were only an interim between other years he had passed and would pass again with Hatsue.

She spoke now, from the backseat, having turned again to look out the window. "Your newspaper," she said. That was all.

"Yes," answered Ishmael. "I'm listening."

"The trial, Kabuo's trial, is unfair," said Hatsue. "You should talk about that in your newspaper."

"What's unfair?" asked Ishmael. "What exactly is unfair? I'll be happy to write about it if you'll tell me."

She was still staring out the window at the snow with strands of wet hair pasted against her cheek. "It's all unfair," she told him bitterly. "Kabuo didn't kill anyone. It isn't in his heart to kill anyone. They brought in that sergeant to say he's a killer—that was just prejudice. Did you hear the things that man was saying? How Kabuo had it in his heart to kill? How horrible he is, a killer? Put it in your paper, about that man's testimony, how all of it was unfair. How the whole trial is unfair."

"I understand what you mean," answered Ishmael. "But I'm not a legal expert. I don't know if the judge should have suppressed Sergeant Maples's testimony. But I hope the jury comes in with the right verdict. I could write a column about that, maybe. How we all hope the justice system does its job. How we hope for an honest result."

"There shouldn't even be a trial," said Hatsue. "The whole thing is wrong, it's wrong"

"I'm bothered, too, when things are unfair," Ishmael said to her. "But sometimes I wonder if unfairness isn't . . . part of things. I wonder if we should even expect fairness, if we should assume we have some sort of right to it. Or if—"

"I'm not talking about the whole universe," cut in Hatsue. "I'm talking about people—the sheriff, that prosecutor, the judge, you. People who can do things because they run newspapers or arrest people or convict them or decide about their lives. People don't have to be unfair, do they? That isn't just part of things, when people are unfair to somebody."

"No, it isn't," Ishmael replied coldly. "You're right—people don't have to be unfair."

When he let them out beside the Imadas' mailbox he felt that somehow he had gained the upper hand—he had an emotional advantage. He had spoken with her and she had spoken back, wanting something from him. She'd volunteered a desire. The strain between them, the hostility he felt—it was better than nothing, he decided. It was an emotion of some sort they shared. He sat in the DeSoto and watched Hatsue trudge away through the falling snow, carrying her shovel on her shoulder. It occurred to him that her husband was going out of her life in the same way he himself once had. There had been circumstances then and there were circumstances now; there were things beyond anyone's control. Neither he nor Hatsue had wanted the war to come—neither of them had wanted that intrusion. But now her husband was accused of murder, and that changed things between them.


From the Audio CD edition.

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Interviews & Essays

On Monday, December 21st, barnesandnoble.com welcomed Jonathan Harr to discuss A CIVIL ACTION.


Moderator: Welcome, Jonathan Harr! Thank you for taking the time to join us online this evening. How are you doing tonight?

Jonathan Harr: I'm doing fine, looking forward to this chat.


Korby from Marlboro, MA: What is your relationship like these days with Schlichtmann?

Jonathan Harr: I don't see him that much, but we talk all the time, especially now that the movie is about to come out. During the case -- and while I was writing the book -- I regarded him as a subject of my scrutiny, which perhaps sounds cold and clinical but is nonetheless true. Since the book's publication, I've relaxed a bit, and we've become friends. I should add that I consider myself friendly with just about everyone I wrote about, the possible exception being Judge Skinner. I certainly bear the judge no animus; but we haven't communicated since the book came out.


Pac87@aol.com from xx: Have you seen the movie version yet? How involved were you with the movie project?

Jonathan Harr: I saw an early cut of the movie last July, and two weeks ago, in L.A., saw the final cut three times in four days. I think Steve Zaillian did a superb job with complicated and difficult material. I honestly think it's a great movie. I had no formal involvement in making it, although I met Steve and we became friends before he started working on the screenplay (he both wrote and directed), and he sent me each draft of the screenplay. We'd talk about the screenplays, but I never wrote a word. I also spent time on the movie set, simply because I was curious, and it's a seductive business -- cameras, lights, movie stars, et cetera. And watching other people work is a lot easier than writing.


Stefano from Woburn, MA: I would like to ask Mr. Harr if he has received any backlash from the court system for his depiction of Judge Skinner and the inadequacies of system. Also, have there been responses that support the view of the system as portrayed in the book, whether they be from professionals in the legal world or from ordinary people? Being from Woburn and attending Suffolk Law School, I have a special interest in this case that has touched the lives of some of my close friends, and this story, which reads like a Greek tragedy, is the greatest piece of nonfiction that I have ever read. Both Jan and Mr. Harr have opened a window into the dark courtrooms of America and have allowed the general public to examine the system which was created to protect them. Unfortunately, this time the system failed. Thank you, Mr. Harr, for a wonderful book that has opened many eyes to the injustices of the justice system.

Jonathan Harr: I'm unaware of any backlash, although God knows, something might be afoot in some quarter. Actually, the reception from the legal community has been very gratifying. It seems that many law schools are using the book in Torts, Civil Procedure, Ethics, Trial Practice, et cetera. I gave a talk at Yale Law School last week, and I'm asked frequently by state bar associations to talk. I've been doing a fair amount of it, but the more I do it, the more I feel writers (this one, at least) should stick to writing and not speaking. I made a conscious effort in writing the book to avoid the authorial voice and pontification. I wanted readers to come to their own conclusions. Thanks for your kind words, by the way.


Cindy from Longmeadow, MA: Do you feel there was justice served by the outcome of this case to both W. R. Grace and Beatrice Foods? Is there still any pending litigation? It will be interesting to see if the movie follows the facts -- especially regarding the verdict. Hollywood tends to like happy endings!

Jonathan Harr: Was justice served? That's a complicated question to which I usually give a long answer. The short answer: In part yes, in part no. The Woburn families, after all, did get their case into the courtroom, and there are few countries on this planet where that would have happened. And they got a substantial sum of money (although no sum could possibly compensate a mother for her child). But the system also failed, miserably in my opinion, when suppression and misconduct was brought to the surface by Schlichtmann and then both the judge and the appeals court shrugged their shoulders, so to speak. The movie follows closely the arc of the story as I saw it and depicted it in the book. Hollywood does like happy endings, but Steve Zaillian doesn't.


Kara from Washington, D.C.: I know you probably have no say in this, but why John Travolta? He seems to be an odd choice for the role.

Jonathan Harr: As Jan Schlichtmann would say: Better John Travolta than Danny DeVito. Actually, John's a good choice; he can play the selfish rogue and yet you can see compassion beneath the surface. Check him out in this movie -- he really is good. I think he deserves an Oscar, although Duvall is getting the attention; he got nominated for best supporting actor for the Golden Globes.


John from Rhode Island: What are you now working on? Is a second novel easier?

Jonathan Harr: I'm working on a New Yorker story, due last June, I think. I have lots of ideas for another book, but ideas are cheap. I'm looking specifically at medical research and hope to have something underway by March. Will the second one be easier? I don't know, but the learning curve on the first was sure steep.


Kevin from Baltimore, MD: Mr. Harr, reading this book was like reading a legal thriller. Do you read a lot of legal fiction? Who are some of your favorites?

Jonathan Harr: I read Scott Turow's first book, PRESUMED INNOCENT, which I thought was superb; I've read a few of John Grisham's.... That's about it for legal fiction.


Eugene Chung from Cobb County, GA: Why do you think America loves reading courtroom dramas? What is it about the lawyer that is so unpopular in real life, but is extremely popular in book form?

Jonathan Harr: Courtroom dramas are perfect narratives. All narratives require conflict and resolution, and a case -- a lawsuit -- by its nature has both.


Steve Trapnell from Lancaster, PA: I am a writer myself, and I am curious about how you tracked and compiled the information for this book over such a long time. Did you record conversations? Take notes and then confirm them with participants later? How much access did you have to the people you wrote about, and how accommodating were they?

Jonathan Harr: I don't use a tape recorder. I find you get too much dross, and transcribing them is incredibly laborious (and I didn't have enough money to pay for transcription). I take notes on a reporter's notebook, and I try to type up those notes every evening. I write fast, using my own shorthand. I'm scared of tape recorders anyhow; I'm always afraid the battery will die or I'll flip the tape over and record over what I just recorded. I got great access from Schlichtmann and his firm and the Woburn families. Jerry Facher was quite open, too; so was Bill Cheeseman, personally, but he was hamstrung by his client, W. R. Grace, to an extent that Facher was not. I describe briefly in the endnotes of the book how I went about reporting. For the most part, everyone was accommodating. In 20 years of reporting, I'm always surprised by that. But in my experience, people generally like to talk about what they do and about themselves if they've got a genuinely interested listener


Mike from Santa Clara, CA: I want to express my satisfaction with this book. I thought A CIVIL ACTION was a well-written account of something all too common in America. What are your thoughts on this matter? Do you think this type of case happens too often (maybe not of equal magnitude) in this country?

Jonathan Harr: My first thought is gratitude that you found the book worth your while.... On the matter of environmental contamination in America, it is altogether too common, I've learned. I've gotten calls from people from Seattle to Miami, from L.A. to Maine, who've got problems similar to those in Woburn. My heart goes out to them; some of their stories are incredibly poignant and full of desperation for a remedy. On balance, I think the courts are not the place where we'll find solutions. That will come with an increased awareness of the fact that without clean air to breathe and clean water to drink, we cannot exist as a society.


Gil from Ft. Collins, CO: Are there any regrets, or things long after the book has been published that you would change or switch in your book?

Jonathan Harr: I wish that Judge Skinner could have found it possible, in one way or another, without violating judicial ethics, to spend time talking to me. Purely from a narrative standpoint, I would have liked to see the world through his eyes. A valuable writing technique is to see one's characters through the eyes of another, and I would have liked to depict Jan Schlichtmann as the judge saw him. For reasons not wholly clear to me the judge felt he couldn't give me that insight. If I'd had it, I think my depiction of him would have been more expansive and perhaps more understanding. I consider him a good judge who, nonetheless, I believe, made a mistake in this case.


Jossie from New York City, NY: In the end, would you say this case was a positive or negative experience for Schlichtmann? How do you think this case changed him as a person?

Jonathan Harr: Overall the case was a horrible experience for him. He lost all his worldly goods (and he did care about that stuff, too!) and his faith in the judicial system that he cared about and believed in. He's experienced sort of a "second coming" with the book and the movie, though. I used to think it had changed him quite dramatically, much for the worse, but I think now it was a spell of clinical depression that seemed to go on for several years. My feeling now is that he's back, the same old Jan -- somewhat older, somewhat wiser, somewhat less willing to gamble everything. He is, however, a truly unique character. In that sense, I was blessed as a writer.


Matt Smith from Tates Creek, KY: What to you are Schlichtmann's best attributes? What about worst?

Jonathan Harr: He's a guy with incredible energy, the sort of person who, when he walks into a room, turns heads. He's smart; he genuinely cares about issues like the environment; he's quite funny; he's generous. He's also unrelentingly persistent, which is both a virtue and a flaw, egotistical, a megalomaniac. What can I say? He's become my friend, and I like him in spite of -- maybe because of -- his flaws as well as his virtues.


Moderator: Thank you, Jonathan Harr! Best of luck with everything. Do you have any closing comments for the online audience?

Jonathan Harr: Only that I enjoyed this quite a bit. I guess I like talking about myself and my work as much as the subjects of my reporting like talking about themselves. My thanks for some provocative questions.


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Reading Group Guide

1. When he hears about the lawsuit, Jack Riley is outraged. "I was born and brought up in this town, " he says. "That goddamn land is my life, my blood, because that's where I get my water" [p. 103]. How does this apparently sincere statement square with Riley's actions? Does your sense of Riley's character change after his final appearance in court [pp. 480-483]? Is Donna Robbins's pity for him appropriate, or is it misplaced?

2. How do the attitudes and actions of Al Love, Tommy Barbas, Paul Shalline, and Joe Meola contrast with one another? How important is personal honor to each of them, in the face of possibly losing their jobs?

3. Can you understand Anne Anderson's decision not to go to Toronto with her husband? Was it really in Jimmy's best interest to stay in Woburn? Might it not be dangerous for her non-contaminated children to remain in the highly polluted Woburn area?

4. During the jury selection Facher says, "I think it's very difficult for any woman with small children to decide the case on the evidence rather than emotion" [p. 282]. Do you agree with him? Do you think he is correct in saying that a father with young children might not find it so difficult? As Harr describes it, does the jury selection process, and the role of the various lawyers within it, seem to be a good system that ensures an impartial jury?

5. How important is money in winning a suit? As a general rule, will the party with the deepest pockets win? Do the results of the Woburn case support that theory? Is it possible to present a case well and fairly, even from a position of financial disadvantage?

6. When Beatrice tries to settle before the trial, Schlichtmann wonderswhether he is "ethically obliged to inform the families of Jacobs's offer" [p. 290]. Is he so obliged? Do the problems that might ensue from this disclosure justify Schlichtmann's secrecy on this subject?

7. Do you find Schlichtmann's dealings with the eight Woburn families to have been sufficiently fair and honest? Was the case taken out of the plaintiffs' hands, and, if so, was such a method essential for an efficient prosecution? Anne Anderson believed that Schlichtmann was patronizing toward the Woburn families, kept them from having any control over their own case, and used them "simply as a vehicle for his own ambition, for his own fame and fortune" [p. 453]. Do you agree with any of her complaints?

8. Judge Skinner believes that the primary motivation in lawsuits over the death of children is "an overwhelming sense of personal guilt." It is not so much the money the families are after, he thinks, as "to have it said clearly that this wasn't their fault" [p. 273]. Is this an accurate description of the Woburn parents' motivations?

9. Is Judge Skinner biased toward the defense, as Schlichtmann believes him to be? Might there be any truth behind Schlichtmann's suspicions of a conspiracy?

10. The questions that Judge Skinner sets for the jurors ask "for answers that were essentially unknowable.... The judge was, in effect, asking the jurors to create a fiction that would in the end stand for the truth" [p. 369]. Do these questions indeed demand too much from a jury of non-experts? Harr suggests that perhaps the case was one "that the judicial system was not equipped to handle" [p. 369]. Is this true? How else might it be handled and settled?

11. In a trial like the one described in A Civil Action, rhetoric plays an enormous part in a lawyer's ultimate success or failure. Is this fair? What about rhetorical tactics that hinder the other side's presentation of evidence, like Facher's repeated objections? Do all of these courtroom tactics finally serve to reveal or to obscure the truth?

12. Is res judicata--the principle that a judgment must remain once it has been decided in court, even in the face of new and conflicting evidence-- a reasonable or an unreasonable principle?

13. After their decision, the jurors each "had some misgivings, but on balance they felt they had done the best they could" [p. 392]. Is that good enough? If not, what might be done to improve the situation?

14. Donna Robbins believes that she and her fellow plaintiffs have succeeded in teaching corporate America a lesson; Reverend Young, on the other hand, thinks that the Grace executives and attorneys have reason to celebrate. With which of these opinions do you agree? Does the final settlement represent a victory, a loss, or a compromise?

15. Schlichtmann says that greed is "our motivating factor" [p. 417], and believes that he has devoted nine years to the Woburn case out of "pride, greed, ambition" [p. 491]. Is it in fact primarily greed that drives these lawyers? What other motivations drove Schlichtmann during the Woburn case? Do you find Schlichtmann to be self-indulgent or self-abnegating? Selfish or honorable?

16. What are your reactions toward Jan Schlichtmann as a lawyer? As a person? Do you find his emotional reactions to events reasonable, or too extreme? Was he traumatized by the trial, or does he thrive on anxiety and chaos?

17. In the Harvard Law Review, Nesson purports that, as summarized by Harr, "the judgments of the courts are meant to reinforce social rules and values and, at the same time, to deter behavior contrary to those rules and values" [p. 236]. Do the courts in fact achieve this end? Has reading A Civil Action changed your ideas about the American judiciary system, and, if so, in what way?

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 209 )
Rating Distribution

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(100)

4 Star

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(26)

2 Star

(12)

1 Star

(5)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 209 Customer Reviews
  • Posted October 25, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    beautifully atmospheric...

    Snow Falling on Cedars is a beautifully atmospheric love story/murder mystery. It takes place on San Piedro Island off the Pacific Coast. The story alternates from the trial of a Japanese American on trial for murder in 1954 to the background stories of the relevant characters leading up to WWII and after. Snow Falling on Cedars brings up questions of loyalty, racism and forgiveness. The mood of the novel matches it's scenery, dark and stormy. The love stories are passionate and emotional. The writing is beautifully descriptive. David Guterson brings the island of San Piedro and it's inhabitants vividly to life in a novel I'll not soon forget.

    15 out of 16 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 7, 2012

    A great lesson in American racial intolerance wrapped in a love story that is ageless.

    For those born after WWII this book explores the Japanese experience of the camps. I would recommend this book to young adults and high school students. It is well written and a pleasure to read.

    6 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 30, 2012

    Recommended

    A good book that starts slow but has deliberate plot and character development. Great care is taken to give extensive background and setting to a decent story. Issues of lost love, racism, fear and intolerance are at the forefront with an ending that is satisfying, if not surprising. A good read.

    6 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 21, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    An Achievement

    A historical tragedy is the backdrop of this murder mystrey involving a Japanese man and a fisherman in Washington. An entire cast of characters are created and they all have depth to them. The scenes of war are descriptive and not over the top violent.
    The pacing of the story is in particular what makes this novel so memorable; the book keeps you completly intune with the mystrey of a man's death while you're introduced to the towns people.

    The great fault of the book is it's too long. Where was the editor? The scenary descriptions were beautiful and the subtle metaphors are appreciated but the book tries the patience of the reader. Although beautiful, there are certain spots where it is okay to skim.

    5 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 20, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Snow Falling On Cedars - A Review

    It is impossible to deduce, by reading this book, that this could be author David Guterson's first attempt at fiction. His writing is fluid, his descriptions of the scenery surrounding the characters in the story transport you into the world of the characters, and his characterization is absolutely on-point.

    The book is narrated by Ishmael Chambers, who is a reporter from the only newspaper of the San Piedro Island, and it begins in a courtroom. The reader bears witness to the trial of Kabuo Miyamoto, who is on trial for the murder of a local fisherman. The attendees of the trial, the local towns people, are either strawberry farmers, of local fisherman. Weaving in and out of the mystery of Kabuo's trial, is the story of Hatsue, who is now Kabuo's wife, and Ishmael, who was once in love with Hatsue.

    We and transported back to the days of World War II via the memories of Ishmael, and this is where the story truly unfolds. We learn of racism, prejudice, love and two young hearts torn asunder by the norms of the world. It is Guterson's meticulous and extremely detailed description of the dynamics between these characters that truly make this novel such a marvel to read. This novel was undoubtedly one of the most interesting and engrossing novels I have ever read in my life. I would highly recommend it to history lovers, and mystery lovers as well, and those who appreciate romance of the real and pragmatic kind.

    4 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 1, 2012

    Recommend.

    This is a good book. Great for history buffs. Suspense til the last page.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 3, 2012

    Extremely thematic, it is a story that can suit anyone. Finely w

    Extremely thematic, it is a story that can suit anyone. Finely written; poetic, and wrought with tragedy, the book does a good job of keeping the reader thinking and feeling. It teaches you about love, loss, and injustice--and at the same time, it reminds us all that even though bad things happen, humans can control what they make of a situation, and it is the "chambers of the human heart" that make up the rest of the world created by circumstance.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 28, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Interesting history

    This book was written very well. It is about Piedro Island off Pugent Sound in the 50s. It is the first island murder trial in 28 years. It has the history of the Japanese internment during WWII and details of the islanders and their habits, a interracial love story and drama.

    It wasn't a book that I couldn't put down, but enjoyed learning the history of the islanders and Japanese immigrants.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 30, 2014

    Great story

    I've had this book for a long time. Had I known how good it was I would have read it a long time ago. It has everything I enjoy in a good book: history, mystery, romance, and characters you care about. As others said some descriptions were a bit lengthy. But I didn't mind. I could just smell the cedars and the strawberry fields!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 29, 2013

    There are a couple of main characters in the book. One character

    There are a couple of main characters in the book. One character is Kabuo, who is on trial for the murder of Carl Heine, another character is Carl who only appears in flashbacks from the moments when he was alive, Ishmael who is Hatsue’s, Kabuo’s present wife, young non- Jap lover. All of the characters are unique and different in their own way. Kabuo feels a lot of guilt throughout the story for killing Germans in the war. I find it amazing how Kabuo accepts his trial and death sentence as fairness for the murders he committed while in the war. He stands for what he believes in. Though Carl is dead for most of the book, he still has a major role in the story. You get to learn a little about Carl and his past. Hatsue seems to be torn between loving a white man or a Japanese man. She knows that she can never love Ishmael no matter how much she wants to. Ishmael has an interesting past after being rejected by Hatsue and being in World War 2. He seems to just sulk around the island after losing an arm in battle and being rejected by the one he loves. The main conflict in this book is external. It is all about the trial for Carl’s death. One example to the rising action is when Art found a fishing gaff with blood on it. When he got it tested, he found out that it was Carl’s blood. At this point all of the facts are showing that Kabuo is guilty but then he tells his own side of the story. He said that Carl cut his palm and that is how the blood got onto the gaff. Now we don’t know what to believe. Did Kabuo kill Carl?
    I liked this book for many reasons. One reason was the detail in the authors writing. The author made every little detail noticeable which made the story very vivid. In the quote, “San Piedro had too a brand of verdant beauty that inclined its residents toward the poetical. Enormous hills, soft green with cedars, rose and fell in every direction”, you can just imagine that sight in your head with the descriptive words that he used. What I disliked about the book was how it started out pretty slow. All main action happened a little later in the book around chapter 17. Lastly, what I also liked about the book was that it was interesting. There was always something would keep you interested like how Ishmael and Hatsue kept their love for each other a secret for so long. There will constantly be something there to pull you in. I would recommend this book because it’s not an ordinary story. There’s an interesting plot, conflict, and overall it is a really good book.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 15, 2010

    a simple masterpiece

    Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson is a beautiful, compelling story published in September of 1994 by Knopt Publishing. Although this novel is portrayed as a mystery or a suspense thriller, its true beauty lies with the emotions of the characters and the relationships they share. This novel takes place on a small, quiet island located in Puget Sound. It is set during and after the second World War. The narrator of the story is a local newspaper publisher, Ishmael Chambers. Most of the character's features and colors are depicted by Chambers's flashbacks of life in the neighborhood before and after the second World War as well as life before the murder trial began. This forms a love story, a war tale, and a mystery as well. When a local fisherman is found suspiciously dead one morning in his fishing nets, a Japanese man named Kabuo Miyamoto is arrested on account of first degree murder. This brings up many issues with the islanders and is a test of true human faith, compassion, and forgiveness.
    I would highly recommend this novel to any reader in search of a novel with deeper meaning under the surface. To read this novel to its highest worth the reader must be in search of much more than if Kabuo Miyamoto is guilty or innocent. Reluctant readers would more than likely become bored with this read and readers under sixteen might not grasp the novel's true meaning. I would say this novel compares most to Tim O'Brien's novel In the Lake of the Woods simply because both novels are constructed of out of order flashbacks that all come back to the present in the end.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 11, 2010

    My favorite Novel

    I read this for school originally, and it's become my favorite novel. I read it at least once a year!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 28, 2009

    Didn't finish it

    Reading is my passion as a pastime. I couldn't get through this book! I started and stopped many times and then just gave it away. I didn't care about the charachters and I didn't think the plot kept my attention. Maybe that would have changed if I continued reading, but If a book doesn't grab me by 1/4 of the way into it, I let it go.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 29, 2009

    Good in some parts...

    I read this novel in high school and although it was more interesting than most of the novels we read, I was not pleased with all of the sexual innuendos and don't think that this is necessary in books to be read and analyzed in school.

    1 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 30, 2008

    Went 'overboard' with description, but overall a good book

    Geez, I felt like I completely skimmed through parts of this book but was still right where I left off. You just want to yell at certain times...'WHAT DOES THIS HAVE TO DO WITH ANYTHING?' The author really gets carried away with description all over the place. But in the end the plot is incredibly strong and believable. Characters are lovable and relatable which is huge. Overall worth the read.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 12, 2014

    Lish

    I read this book a few years ago and absolutely loved it! Give it 6 stars!!!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 11, 2014

    RACES

    :3

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 11, 2014

    Game ideas

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 12, 2014

    thought provoking story

    This is a good book; I enjoyed it very much

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 28, 2014

    EXCELLENT!

    Enjoyable book - makes you look into. your heart against preconceived prejudices we all inevitably hold within.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 209 Customer Reviews

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