Reading Together

What if the entire community read the same book at the same time? Read and discuss David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars with people of all ages and walks of life.


Korematsu v United States

On February 19, 1942, executive order 9066 designated how the United States military should handle military operations and protect against sabotage and espionage. It prescribed military areas and determined who may be excluded from these areas. This executive order resulted in the evacuation and internment of some 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry. Persons with even 1/16 Japanese ancestry were placed into so-called War Relocation Camps.

One man did not abide by the order. Fred Korematsu refused to report for his evacuation. He was eventually caught and shipped to the Topaz camp in Arizona. A local branch of the American Civil Liberties Union in northern California took up his case which went before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Dr. Mark Hurwitz spoke on March 31, explaining Korematsu v. United States giving us a crash course in presidential executive orders during times of war. As an associate professor of political science at Western Michigan University, Hurwitz teaches classes in constitutional law, and always discusses Korematsu v. United States.  Inevitably some of his students will be surprised to learn about the evacuation and internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.

“Students come to me with a dumbfounded look, saying ‘I had no idea.’” Teaching Korematsu v. United States is Hurwitz’s way of making sure history does not repeat itself.

To understand the court case, Dr. Hurwitz explained, one must understand that the President of the United States, has a great deal of latitude in times of war. The expansion of war powers began with President Lincoln during the Civil War and had expanded over the decades. After the Japanese Empire’s attack on Pearl Harbor, there was a “real and legitimate fear that the West coast would be attacked. Defense contractors were decimated. The military was a sitting duck.”


Recognizing that the President has power beyond what is in the Constitution and being unwilling to interfere with Congress or the military, the U.S. Supreme Court voted to uphold executive order 9066. It was not unanimous decision, however. There were three dissenting justices: Robert Jackson, Owen Roberts and Frank Murphy (former governor of Michigan).

Years later, the United States made an official apology for the internment and paid reparations of some $1.2 billion. In 1998, Fred Korematsu was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton.

 “Defining Moments: Frank Murphy, Fred Korematsu, and the Internment of Japanese Americans During World War II” Is a documentary produced by the Michigan Bar Association and Michigan Government Television. Among those interviewed in the documentary are Iwao and Mary Ishino of East Lansing, who were our guests for the March 25 program about the internment.

If you’d like to read the proceedings of Korematsu v United States, pay a visit to KPL’s law library.


Korematsu v. United States

Guest post: Friendship Remembered

We feature this guest post from Miranda Howard, a librarian at Western Michigan University and a member of the Reading Together Steering Committee.

“Our steering committee discussions regarding the treatment of Japanese Americans during WWII always brought to mind a letter my mother received in celebration of her 80th birthday in 1997.

My sister contacted many of my mother’s long-time friends, asking them to send their thoughts on their friendship with my mother to be compiled into an album for a gift. This letter that came to mind was from Mariko and expressed how important my mother’s friendship was to her during the war.

My mother often spoke of her friends Mariko and Jun Inouye, two people with a baby I remember from old 1940s photographs. Jun, raised in Hawaii, son of a Japanese professor, was a Northwestern Dental School classmate of my father’s. When the dental students were told of tuition remission if they joined the Navy or Army, my father was accepted into the Army. Jun was not, due his Japanese heritage, even though his brothers in Hawaii were drafted.

Mariko’s parents were taken to an internment camp in a western state.

My older brother was born in Jan. 1942, just after the US entered the war. Mariko and Jun soon had a son as well. Mariko found that salespeople in stores were unwilling to serve her as a customer because she was Japanese. Going into a department store in Chicago and Evanston, Illinois, to purchase baby clothes and other necessary baby items became a racial intimidation for her. Mariko’s letter for my mother’s 80th birthday told of my mother’s kindness to her in 1943, 54 years earlier, when my mother gave her baby items for her son because my mother understood the discrimination Mariko was facing.

To this day I still find my mother's kindness to her friend heartwarming, but am surprised and embarrassed that the Chicago and Evanston of my youth, places I always thought of as progressive communities, were as prejudiced as other regions in America.” 


Miranda Howard, Reading Together Steering Committee

Examining Good Literature

What qualities contribute to a book’s lasting value? Can we predict what will become a classic?

On March 9, Dr. Nicolas S. Witschi of Western Michigan University’s Department of English was our guest speaker for “The Book as a Literary Classic.”  Describing Snow Falling on Cedars as a “complex and rich book for evaluation and interpretation,” he said it contains many qualities consistent with good literature. Here are some highlights:

  1. Sophisticated techniques. The framing narrative is a murder trial. As the trial unfolds, we learn other stories as well, so not only do we see the progression of the trial but we know the events that led up to it. Guterson adds depth and richness with a plethora of “structured binaries” — the push and pull of paired opposites such as just/unjust, true/untrue, war/peace; past/present; young/old; power/powerlessness; chaos/control.
  2. Evocative detail. Guterson’s texture of language and words “develops a tapestry.” In one example, the author describes a natural setting that also mirrors a character’s state of mind.
  3. Literature that informs the novel. Snow Falling on Cedars is “keenly aware of its literary forebears,” Dr. Witschi said, offering a short list of influential titles, among them: Moby Dick, To Kill a Mockingbird, Sense and Sensibility, and Winesburg, Ohio;
  4. Multiple themes. Snow Falling on Cedars is a romance, a murder mystery, and a story of endurance amidst hardship and racial prejudice. It also is the story of an artist coming into his own. At the end of the book, we get the sense that Ishmael has changed, has found himself as a writer, gaining a sense of where his place should be. And as Ishmael begins to write, we are left to ponder what will become of him as a writer?


Book as a Literary Classic

Important Conversations

The treatment of Japanese Americans during World War II is a central theme of Snow Falling on Cedars. The book and its events are ideal springboards for discussions about race and racism. But it’s not always comfortable to talk about these subjects, and so people sometimes retreat.

One of our partner organizations is the Kalamazoo YWCA, the first and oldest YWCA in Michigan. Following a mission to eliminate racism and empower women, the YWCA offers a number of programs about racism and diversity. Maria Drawhorn, YWCA’s Chief Program Officer, very deftly led a conversation about race March 2. Beginning with a discussion of characters and incidents in Snow Falling on Cedars, she then moved to questions that allowed participants to examine how racism can be systemic or institutionalized. When participants were put into small group discussions, they seemed reluctant to stop talking.


The Kalamazoo community will be talking about race and racism over the next year. Snow Falling on Cedars was selected as a complementary prelude to an exhibit opening in October 2010. Race: Are We So Different? uses history, science and stories to understand what race is and is not. Read more about the exhibit and the community initiative that has been working to develop programs and conversations about this important topic.


Race: Why Are We So Different?

Racial Prejudice

PBS is again airing The National Parks, a magnificent series by Ken Burns about how this country’s national parks came to be. Episode 5: Great Nature (1933-1945), includes a story about Chiura Obata, an artist who was inspired by Yosemite. He was one of some 120,000 Japanese Americans sent to internment camps. While at Topaz, Obata started an art school for others incarcerated at the camp. Go here to learn more about his story and view some of his artwork. Episode 5 can be viewed online for the next few days, or you can check out the entire series from KPL’s collection.

Racial prejudice toward Japanese Americans is a prominent theme in Snow Falling on Cedars. Join us for A Conversation About Race on March 2, in a discussion led by staff from the Kalamazoo YWCA’s program on racial justice.


The National Parks

The Avid Reader Toolkit

Yesterday’s winter storm was a fitting prelude to discussions of Snow Falling on Cedars during the Avid Reader Toolkit program. We opened with a fascinating presentation about Japanese culture and beliefs led by Masanouri Takeda, managing director of the Japan-America Society of West Michigan, and a member of the Reading Together Steering Committee. Mr. Takeda explained that Western culture’s belief in God has developed “independent humans” seeking to avoid guilt. Japanese culture, on the other hand, has developed “social oriented humans” who seek to avoid shame. He went on to explain that the exclusion and incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II was particularly painful because it meant they were being separated from society.

Next, we delved into the book with Sherry Ransford Ramsdell, retired English teacher from Kalamazoo Central High School and longtime Reading Together volunteer. Ms. Ramsdell began by showing five types of conflict present in Snow Falling on Cedars, all of which are played out on many levels: Person vs person, person vs society, person vs nature, person vs self, and person vs machine. She praised David Guterson for his “well developed characters,” which contribute to the book’s complex dramatic tension. And even though the characters are developed to the point that readers may think they understand them well, the story is told from a limited omniscient perspective. You don’t know everything, just a little. Because we are not given every character’s thoughts and actions, we are treated to a wonderfully rich experience.


Snow Falling on Cedars

2010 Reading Together selection

David Guterson’s New York Times best-seller Snow Falling on Cedars will be the 2010 Reading Together selection. Book discussions and a wide variety of special events will take place during February, March and April. The author will visit Kalamazoo on March 17.


More blog posts

Press Coverage

March 18, 2010
David GutersonDavid Guterson
Perseverance paid off in short order...
March 14, 2010
Artistic Rewards Artistic Rewards
The better part of a decade to write...
March 11, 2010
WMUK InterviewWMUK Interview
Arts and More with Lorraine Caron
Feb 17, 2010
Racial PrejudiceRacial Prejudice
A prelude to the race exhibit...
Sep 27, 2009
Book Selection Book Selection
A meditation on race and prejudice