The about-the-author bit in the frontmatter of the book, notes that David Guterson lives on an island in Puget Sound. The fictitious San Piedro Island (where the story is set) sits just off the southern tip of Lopez Island, in the San Juan Islands, where Puget Sound meets the Juan de Fuca Strait and the Strait of Georgia. They say that writers should write what they know, and in this case, Guterson wrote about his own backyard. The scene is set carefully, and lovingly, on a beautiful wooded island, in the 1930s through the 1950s, when life was simpler, and neighbors knew one another's business.
In the middle of that time period, of course, is World War II. The life on the island changes during that time, just as it changes everywhere in American, when its young men go off to war, and some don't return. And like many western American places especially, a large portion of the their population is of Japanese decent, who are taken away by the War Relocation Authority in 1942, after Pearl Harbor, as part of the Japanese-American Internment.
The Interment is what Guterson uses to crack the quiet, fishing and farming community of San Piedro Island open, to see whats inside. What he shows us, is the lives of the Japanese immigrants, and how they settled on the island to farm, and sometimes fish, and how the American neighbors saw them: as foriegners, no different than the native American and Canadian seasonal workers, who came to the island to pick strawberries, and sometimes stayed.
The status of the Japanese families changes over time however, as their children are born as citizens, and some go off to fight the Germans and the Japanese in the war. But when they return, to some, they are still just Japs. Its a story of the history of the island, and its families, the war, and how it drove a wedge into their lives, and ended up in a murder trial about which the story is woven.
The film, Snow Falling On Cedars, based on the book, was partially filmed in Greenwood, BC, selected to depict the fictitious village of Amity Harbor, on San Piedro Island. Interestingly, Greenwood is not a harbor town at all: in fact it sits at 2454 feet above sea level, and at least 200 miles from the coast.
I made it sound complicated didn't I? It isn't. Read this book.