David Guterson's reputation as a writer began with his first novel, Snow Falling on Cedars. It is a blend of courtroom drama and romance that takes place in a small town in Washington. Set in 1954, the novel examines the dynamics of the fictitious community of San Piedro Island after World War II. The past and present stories of many of the citizens of the small community spin off the central murder trial. Critics have embraced this novel for its sensitivity, vivid imagery, well-rounded characters, and thoughtful handling of difficult issues. Guterson admits that Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird (which he assigned his high school students to read) was a major influence on his novel. He was inspired by the structure, which brings together separate stories, and the drama created by a racially-motivated trial in a small community.
Snow Falling on Cedars went virtually unnoticed when it was released in hardback. Once it was published in paperback, however, the book's popularity gained momentum from word of mouth, and the book became a paperback bestseller. In fact, Guterson's novel became the fastest-selling book in Vintage Books' (the publisher that picked up the novel's paperback rights) history. Overseas, the novel also enjoyed best-selling status; Snow Falling on Cedars has been translated into fifteen languages. The success of the book enabled Guterson to quit his teaching job and focus on writing. In addition, the novel won the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Award and the prestigious PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction in 1995.