A Character Review: Carl Heine

In David Guterson's novel, Snow Falling on Cedars, we learn many things about the fictional character of Carl Heine. While not truly a main character, the book certainly revolves around him, or more accurately the circumstances surrounding his death. Because of his demise, creating a character study of this man requires the careful attention to how others in the novel see him.

Carl Heine grew up a normal, though rather large, boy. His Bavarian parents raised him on their 30 acre strawberry farm outside of the small town of Amity Harbor. He attended the same school and rode the same school bus as the other children living on his island home off the coast of Washington state. In high school, he wore the letterman's jacket that he earned from playing on both the varsity football and baseball teams. When old enough, he drove around at night with his friends. He spoke well and often with this group of friends or with anyone else. This was the old Carl.

The old Carl went to war and never returned. In his place was a different man - silent, and while not hostile, he could never be described as friendly. The only one of his siblings who returned from the war, Carl was a gunner on the USS Canton and was involved in a battle near Okinawa. During this battle, his ship was sunk, and the young seaman was forced to watch his comrades drown all around him. We know very little about anything else Carl may have experienced in the war, though if pressed, he would discuss it with his wife without exaggerating. It is the effects of the war that we see in Carl rather than his experiences in it.

Ironically, Carl returns home only to go back to sea as a gill-netter. His post-war disposition seems to suit this profession. It required spending long hours of the night alone at sea. During the day he slept, and he spent no time socializing in the taverns or local coffee shops, but rather worked on the duties of his household. He had cleared his own land and built his own home, which was respectable, sturdy, functional, and yet uninviting.

In Amity Harbor, Carl was seen as somewhat intimidating to the average man, though he was well respected by his peers who worked the harbor in their fishing boats. On any cold day he could be sighted wearing his rubber boots, wool hat, and field jacket but rarely wearing a smile. On those uncommon moments when he spoke, it was usually about tools or objects, and though courteous, he was never overly thankful, and rarely laughed.

Not long after returning a veteran of the Pacific theater, Carl Heine became the target of Susan Marie. It wasn't long until her feigned innocent advances became not-so-innocent fondling on the hill overlooking town, and then marriage. She knew immediately that she had made an excellent choice in this dependable blond haired and bearded man who dwarfed her with his broad chest and shoulders and his 6'3", 235lb frame. He was a much different man with his wife and children than he seemed to be to the community.

To his family, Carl was gentle man. He and his family were present in the last pew at the local Lutheran church every Sunday. He was quick, quicker in fact than his wife, to respond to the pained yell of his youngest son. This son he cradled in his arms to comfort his pain, and then again after his visit to the local doctor's office. He would look into the eyes of his wife closely and with an intimacy and seriousness that did not seem to embarrass him. The same man who brought fear and intimidation to the county coroner would also use a pumice stone to keep his hands smooth for Susan Marie. He was happy when she told him she was pregnant, and he was willing, skilled, and adventurous in doing the things that made her so.

It should not be said that Carl's problems since the war did not affect his home life. There were times when he wouldn't say much. He didn't like to explain or elaborate on things, and this irritated Susan Marie. She would refer to his silence or his trailing off as one of his moments which she attributed to his time in the war. She didn't understand many things about him, and was quite surprised when he referred to Kabuo as a "Jap" saying that he didn't hate them (the Japanese), but didn't like them either. Susan Marie also tended to worry about her future with Carl, fearing that when the physical relationship, on which their love was founded, slowed down she would be forced into the world of his silence with no reprieve.

From his mother, Carl learned to be neat and tidy. He was in fact obsessed with having a place for everything and everything in its place. His clothing, even if old and worn, was well tended. The boat he named after his wife, his house, and his land were well cared for. In fact, his boat was so neat, that even after an accident leading to his death, the only thing out of place was a simple coffee cup. It is unfortunate, that his fixation with being orderly ultimately caused him to lose his life.

Because of his death, we learn of Carl mostly through the eyes and memories of others. There are very few pages in Snow Falling on Cedars which refer to Carl when he is alive, and even fewer in which he speaks. A character study of Carl is therefore a careful reading of other's accounts of him, and because of this we will never know the true Carl Heine. As Ishmael will tell us, "The heart of any other, because it had a will, would remain forever mysterious."

Excerpt from Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson

Carl came from old-time island stock; his grandfather, Bavarian born, had established thirty acres of strawberry fields on prime growing land in Center Valley. His father, too, had been a strawberry farmer before dying of a stoke in '44. Then Carl's mother, Etta Heine, had sold all thirty acres to the Jurgensen clan while her son was away at the war. They were hard-toiling, quiet people, the Heines. Most people on San Piedro liked them. Carl, had served as a gunner on the U.S.S. Canton, which went down during the invasion of Okinawa. He'd survived the war - other island boys hadn't - and had come home to a gill-netter's life.

On the sea Carl's blond hair had gone russet colored. He weighed two hundred and thirty-five pounds, much of it carried in his chest and shoulders. On winter days, picking fish from his net, he wore a wool cap knitted by his wife and an infantryman's battered field jacket. He spent no time at the San Piedro Tavern or drinking coffee at the San Piedro Cafe. On Sunday mornings he sat with his wife and children in a back pew of the First Hill Lutheran Church, blinking slowly in the pale sanctuary light, a hymnbook open in his large, square hands, a calm expression on his face. Sunday afternoons he squatted on the aft deck of his boat, silently and methodically untangling his gill net or knitting its flaws up patiently. He worked alone. He was courteous but not friendly. He wore rubber boots almost everywhere, like all San Piedro fishermen. Carl had named his boat after his wife, and in '48, built a big frame house just west of Amity Harbor, including an apartment for his mother, Etta.


All in all, Carl Heine was a good man. He was silent, yes, and grave like his mother, but the war had a part in that. Carl rarely laughed, but he did not seem unhappy or dissatisfied. Now his death would land hard on San Piedro; no one would want to fathom its message in a place where so many made their living fishing. The fear of the sea that was always there, simmering beneath the surface of their island lives, would boil up in their hearts again.

Written by me for an undergraduate English Literature class
ENGLIT 500 Critical Reading
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