David Guterson Essay - Critical Essays

Guterson, David


David Guterson Snow Falling on Cedars

Award: PEN/Faulkner Prize for Fiction

Born in 1956, Guterson is an American novelist and short story writer.

Snow Falling on Cedars is set on the Puget Sound island of San Piedro in 1954 and centers on the murder trial of Kabuo Miyomoto, accused of killing fisherman Carl Heine. Miyomoto and his family were sent in 1942 to Manzanar, one of the relocation camps in which many Japanese Americans were interned during World War II because—though many had lived in America for generations—the American government determined they represented a threat to national security due to their race. Perhaps surprisingly, upon his release Miyomoto joined the United States Army and fought in Italy. After the war he returned to San Piedro to find that the strawberry farm his family had been buying from the Heine family had been sold during the Miyomoto's absence. Miyomoto's obsession with the farm provides the apparent motive for his alleged murder of Heine. Although the action of the novel focuses on the investigation and testimony presented at the trial, Guterson's omniscient viewpoint allows for numerous flashbacks among several of the characters, including a subplot involving an adolescent romance between Ishmael Chambers, a war veteran who operates the local newspaper, and Hatsue, Miyomoto's wife. Critics have praised Guterson's subtle treatment of racial prejudice and have characterized the novel as a study of community, hypocrisy, and the debilitating effects of guilt and obsession. Miyomoto's drive to reclaim the farm, and the guilt he feels for having killed Germans in Italy, is contrasted throughout with Chambers's vague desire to rekindle his romance with Hatsue. Although some commentators contend that the novel lacks an intriguing protagonist and suffers from an overabundance of detail, most have lauded Guterson's prose, arguing that he invigorates his story with a dramatic and suspenseful pace and evokes a clear sense of the island's physical environment and the mood and way of life of its inhabitants.

Principal Works

The Country Ahead of Us, the Country Behind (short stories) 1989
Snow Falling on Cedars (novel) 1994


Michael Harris (review date 19 September 1994)

SOURCE: "Sometimes, Even Good People Must Coexist With Evil," in Los Angeles Times, September 19, 1994, p. E4.

[In the review below, Harris comments on character and theme in Snow Falling on Cedars.]

David Guterson's haunting first novel [Snow Falling on Cedars] works on at least two levels. It gives us a puzzle to solve—a whodunit complete with courtroom maneuvering and surprising turns of evidence—and at the same time it offers us a mystery, something altogether richer and deeper.

In 1954, off the island of San Piedro in Puget Sound, salmon fisherman Carl Heine is found drowned and entangled in his boat's gill net. It seems to be an accident. Soon, however, darker suspicions bubble to the surface, and a fisherman of Japanese descent, Kabuo Miyomoto, is put on trial for murder.

Heine, the coroner discovers, has a fractured skull; before drowning, he hit his head on something, or was hit. Evidence confirms that Miyomoto boarded Heine's boat on the foggy night when he died—a rare occurrence among these solitary and self-reliant men. Yet Miyomoto's initial statements to investigators failed to mention such a visit.

Besides, Miyomoto had a motive for foul play. When San Piedro's Japanese population was interned in 1942, his parents had nearly paid off their mortgage on a seven-acre strawberry farm bought from Heine's parents. Heine's mother, Etta, promptly sold the land to another farmer. Stoic in the face of legalized injustice, Miyomoto and his wife, Hatsue, waited patiently to repurchase the farm when its owner grew old, but instead Heine bought it just before his death.

This is the puzzle: We are led to believe that Miyomoto, who fought with the legendary 442nd Regimental Combat Team in Europe, is an honorable man, although his stern bearing revives anti-Japanese prejudices...

(The entire section is 786 words.)

Merle Rubin (review date 23 September 1994)

SOURCE: "First Forays Into Novel Writing," in The Christian Science Monitor, September 23, 1994, p. 12.

[In the following excerpt, Rubin offers an unfavorable review of Snow Falling on Cedars, stating "unfortunately, almost nothing in this novel comes alive."]

David Guterson, a contributing editor at Harper's Magazine and author of a story collection and a book on home schooling, would seem to have assembled the right elements for his first novel, Snow Falling on Cedars, about the murder trial of a Japanese-American fisherman set on Washington's scenic San Piedro Island in the 1950s. There's the issue of anti-Japanese bigotry, the unique beauty of the setting, and the added drama of a love triangle involving the accused man's lovely Japanese-American wife and a local reporter covering the trial.

Unfortunately, almost nothing in this novel comes alive. The leaden narrative fails to generate the suspense or the human empathy to propel the reader through an accretion of colorless details that would put even the most conscientious juror soundly to sleep. This is a pity, because somewhere in Guterson's overlong novel might have been a poignant story about the enduring, peculiarly human need to seek justice in a chaotic world.

Susan Kenney (review date 16 October 1994)

SOURCE: "Their Fellow Americans," in The New York Times Book Review, October 16, 1994, pp. 12-13.

[In the review below, Kenney praises Guterson's handling of Snow Falling on Cedars' complex narrative.]

In March 1942, just before the 800 Japanese residents of San Piedro Island in Puget Sound are herded off to a California internment camp, 18-year-old Hatsue Imada gives what seems a naïve response to her mother's description of the deep racial bias that has surfaced in their small, isolated community in the wake of Pearl Harbor: "They don't all hate us," Hatsue says. "You're exaggerating, mother—you know you are. They're not so different from us, you know. Some...

(The entire section is 1237 words.)

Nicci Gerrard (review date 1 January 1995)

SOURCE: "Love for a Cold Climate," in The Observer, January 1, 1995, p. 9.

[In the review below, Gerrard remarks favorably on Snow Falling on Cedars.]

Urban thrillers are out; the thrills of the far north are now capturing the imagination of readers. E Annie Proulx did it with the award-winning The Shipping News set among the lowering skies, blistering winds and foggy, stunning bleakness of Newfoundland. Peter Høeg did it, too, with his best-selling Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow, so full of northern bitterness the wintry recesses of the human spirit. And this year, first-time novelist David Guterson is set to burst in from the cold.


(The entire section is 408 words.)

Nancy Pate (review date 12 January 1995)

SOURCE: "Murder Unveils an Island's Secrets," in Chicago Tribune, January 12, 1995, p. 4.

[In the review below, Pate remarks favorably on Snow Falling on Cedars.]

It is December of 1954, and in the crowded courthouse on the Puget Sound island of San Piedro, a man is on trial for murder. Outside, a winter storm is brewing, the wind from the sea driving the snowflakes inland. Soon, the snow quietly blankets the island—much like the silent prejudice that shrouds its "five thousand damp souls."

The man accused of murdering salmon fisherman Carl Heine is another fisherman, Kabuo Miyomoto. He and Carl went to school together, but then Kabuo, like the 843...

(The entire section is 461 words.)

Stephen Henighan (review date 26 May 1995)

SOURCE: "Red and Yellow Necks," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4808, May 26, 1995, p. 23.

[In the following review, Henighan discusses characterization and the theme of racism in Snow Falling on Cedars.]

Set in 1954, on an island near Seattle, Snow Falling on Cedars describes the trial of a Japanese-American fisherman accused of murdering a white colleague. When Carl Heine's body is hauled up out of his own net, a wound on his head, combined with circumstantial evidence and racial suspicion, leads to the arrest of his neighbour and boyhood friend Kabuo Miyamoto. The trial's investigation of the tangled relations of the Heines and the Miyamotos reveals the...

(The entire section is 574 words.)

Further Reading


Gehrman, Jody Elizabeth. "Hatching a Movie Egg." The San Francisco Review of Books 21, No. 1 (January/February 1996): 30.

Mixed review of Snow Falling on Cedars. Gehrman praises the novel's suspense and dramatic tension, but finds its emotional content trite and its characterizations of Japanese Americans uninspired.

Howard, Jennifer. Review of Snow Falling on Cedars, by David Guterson. Book World—The Washington Post (16 October 1994): 8.

Favorably reviews Guterson's novel.

Iyer, Pico. "Snowbound." Time...

(The entire section is 140 words.)