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David Guterson was born in
Seattle in 1956, and has spent nearly his
entire life in Washington, in the area around Puget Sound. After
receiving undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University
of Washington, he taught high school English on Bainbridge Island
near Seattle while writing for Sports Illustrated and Harper’s
Magazine. Guterson also published a collection of short
stories called The Country Ahead of Us,
Country Behind and the nonfiction work Family Matters:
Why Homeschooling Makes Sense. He and his wife, Robin,
have homeschooled all four of their children.
Guterson wrote Snow Falling on Cedars over
the span of ten years while he was teaching, spending the early
morning hours writing. The novel ranks as one of the most popular
recent literary novels in the United States; it has been a surprise
bestseller, with well over one million copies in print. The novel
won the PEN / Faulkner Award in 1995, and
its success allowed Guterson to quit teaching and write full time.
In 1999, the same year a major film adaptation of Snow
Falling on Cedars opened, Guterson published a second novel, East
of the Mountains, also set in the Pacific Northwest.
Guterson wrote Snow Falling on Cedars based
on his personal experiences in the Pacific Northwest and eight years
of research. He portrays the fictional community of San Piedro,
a culturally and physically isolated island in Puget Sound. The
novel concerns the trial of a Japanese-American man accused of killing
a white fisherman and explores the racial tensions that simmer under
the surface of the outwardly peaceful, even sleepy, island.
Japanese-Americans, like their fictional counterparts
in Guterson’s novel, were often victims of prejudice during World
War II. When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941,
the United States government ordered the internment of more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans,
two-thirds of whom were native-born citizens. The government herded
these Japanese-Americans into internment camps like prisoners of
war, violating their civil rights. Scattered across remote areas
of the American West, the camps were places of hardship and very
poor living conditions. Additionally, when they were finally released
from the camps, many Japanese-Americans, like the Miyamoto family
in Guterson’s novel, returned home to find that they had lost their
jobs, property, savings, and roles in their communities. The United
States government did not officially apologize for its actions until
nearly fifty years later.
While San Piedro and its characters are fictional, many
of the events and circumstances in Snow Falling on Cedars are
based in reality. In particular, the character of Arthur Chambers,
who speaks out against discrimination as the editor of the local
newspaper in San Piedro, is based on a real newspaper editor from
Bainbridge Island. This editor, Walt Woodward, was one of very few
members of the press to oppose publicly the government’s internment
policies during World War II. Additionally, in an interview with
the New York Times, Guterson claims to have patterned
the character of Nels Gudmundsson—an elderly, morally upright lawyer
who defends the accused Japanese man—on his own father.
Though loosely based on real events, Snow Falling
on Cedars is also heavily influenced by another novel involving
a racially charged criminal trial, Harper Lee’s To Kill
a Mockingbird, which was published in 1960.
Like Lee, Guterson explores issues of racism using a criminal trial
and portrays young people who attempt to come to terms with the
forces of fate, love, and hate that have the potential both to divide
and unite communities.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Snow Falling on Cedars!