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,The 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.