Snow Falling on Cedars

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

SNOW FALLING ON CEDARS is an impressive first novel. On their small island in Puget Sound, Guterson’s strawberry farmers, his fishermen and their wives, and his protagonist, a newspaper editor, would seem to be insulated from the turmoil of the mainland. When the body of Carl Heine, Jr., is found dragging behind his boat, however, old prejudices surface. Less than a decade after World War II, it is only too easy to look for villains within the Japanese American community. Since everyone knows that he has never become reconciled to the Heine family’s seizure of land his father had bought, Kabuo Miyomoto is arrested for murder. It is his trial which provides the framework for the novel.

While most of the islanders base their belief in Kabuo’s guilt or innocence on their own ethnic backgrounds, the newspaperman Ishmael Chambers cannot help hoping for a conviction for selfish reasons. For years, he has been in love with Hatsue Miyomoto, Kabuo’s wife, and Ishmael cannot help fantasizing about his chances if Kabuo disappears from her life. When Ishmael comes into possession of information that will clear Kabuo, he is tempted to suppress it. Nevertheless, Hatsue’s nobility and his own conscience force Ishmael to abandon his habitual cynicism, and he does the right thing, thus saving not only Kabuo but also himself. SNOW FALLING ON CEDARS is a novel which is often lyrical, always convincing, and above all, solidly based on the author’s knowledge of human nature, both at its worst and, happily, at its best.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XC, August, 1994, p. 2022.

The Christian Science Monitor. September 23, 1994, p. 12.

Commonweal. CXXI, December 2, 1994, p. 28.

Hungry Mind Review. LXXXVI, Fall, 1994, p. 30.

Library Journal. CXIX, August, 1994, p. 129.

Los Angeles Times. September 19, 1994, p. E4.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIX, October 16, 1994, p. 12.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLI, August 1, 1994, p. 70.

Time. CXLIV, September 26, 1994, p. 79.

The Washington Post Book World. XXIV, October 16, 1994, p. 8.

Snow Falling on Cedars

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

David Guterson’s first novel is set on a fictional island in Puget Sound not unlike the one on which he lives with his family. In countless details, ranging from the intricacies of salmon-netting, boat handling, and the culture of strawberries, to the proper way to harvest geoduck clams, the author reveals his precise knowledge of his environment. Snow Falling on Cedars should not be classified, however, as merely an interesting piece of local color, nor even as a period study tracing the growth of anti-Japanese sentiment on the West Coast after the United States was attacked by Japan and plunged into World War II. Within the context of a murder trial almost a decade after that war, Guterson’s small island becomes a stage on which is enacted a universal drama, the battle between suspicion and hatred on one hand, and trust, compassion, tolerance, and love on the other.

As the courtroom drama unfolds, it becomes clear why Kabuo Miyomoto, a Japanese American fisherman, is suspected of murder. When Carl Heine, Jr., was found dead, entangled in the nets of his fishing boat, and then when the medical examiner discovered that Carl had received a blow to the skull before he died, the sheriff began to look for the conventional triad, motive, means, and opportunity. Kabuo had all of them. Like the other fishermen, he had been alone on his boat on the night of Carl’s death, and thus he had no alibi. There was also circumstantial evidence suggesting that, despite his initial denial, Kabuo had in fact spent some time on Carl’s boat that night, presumably lending him a battery. As for a motive, of all the men on the island, Kabuo had the most obvious reason to dislike Carl. Before the war, the dead man’s father, Carl Heine, Sr., had sold Kabuo Miyomoto’s father seven acres of good strawberry land. After her husband died, his greedy widow, Etta, took advantage of the fact that the Miyomotos were waiting out the war in an internment camp and resold the land at a higher price. When Carl, Jr., backed his mother, Kabuo made no secret of his animosity. To the sheriff, it looked like a clear-cut case of murder, and he felt justified in arresting Kabuo as the man who had committed the crime.

On one level, the novel is simply an account of Kabuo’s trial. There seems to be no question as to the outcome, for every witness who testifies seems to make the case against Kabuo even stronger. His good character is not enough to save him. Ironically, the fact that, like so many other Americans of Japanese descent, Kabuo volunteered to serve his country during the war does not help; instead, the testimony of his former sergeant as to Kabuo’s skill in kendo explains how a man so much smaller could overpower the large and powerful Carl. Perhaps most damning of all is Kabuo’s demeanor in the courtroom. While the evidence is being presented, he sits impassive, as if he is unmoved by Carl’s death, by the grief of his widow and his mother, and by the accusation that has been brought against him. To everyone in the courtroom except his wife, Kabuo has the look of a guilty man.

Until the last few pages of the book, there is no hint that Kabuo can possibly be acquitted; therefore, although as a devoted family man and a courageous war veteran he is shown sympathetically, there is no buildup of suspense as the trial progresses. The real action takes place within the three major characters, who, as they examine their past lives, serve as their own judges and juries in matters of moral guilt and innocence.

Certainly one reason that Kabuo makes such a poor impression on his jury is that they misread his impassivity as a lack of feeling; unfortunately, with their very different backgrounds, they are unaware that Japanese American parents train their children to respond to adversity by maintaining at least the appearance of composure. The jurors are right, however, in reading guilt in the defendant’s face. During the long period of imprisonment before his trial, Kabuo spent a great deal of time thinking about his wartime experiences, and he concluded that at heart he is as enthusiastic a killer as the mad samurai from whom he is descended. Kabuo feels guilty, not because of anything he has done, but because of what he believes himself to be. Therefore he finds it impossible to look innocent in the courtroom; he is so conscious of another sort of guilt that he cannot fight what he knows is a false accusation. It is almost as if in permitting himself to be convicted of a crime he did not commit, Kabuo will somehow receive expiation for his own nature.

Like Kabuo, Ishmael Chambers, the local newspaperman, has nightmarish recollections of his wartime experiences, but Ishmael has never really faced himself. Instead, he looks at his empty sleeve and indulges in...

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Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

The Internment of Japanese Americans
On December 7, 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on the island of Oahu in...

(The entire section is 639 words.)

Literary Style

(Novels for Students)


Guterson's descriptive passages about the settings of the novel have drawn a great deal of comment from...

(The entire section is 881 words.)

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Guterson is a remarkable writer. Few other authors, for instance, understand and use parallelisms as well as he does. He has a visiting crime...

(The entire section is 623 words.)

Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

America, as a pluralistic society, requires that many races and colors live and work in close proximity. Often racial stresses and tensions...

(The entire section is 465 words.)

Social Concerns

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Snow Falling On Cedars is a romance, a mystery, and a courtroom drama. By combining all three forms, David Guterson lets us see the...

(The entire section is 3675 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Novels for Students)

1954: Wartime experiences figure largely into the lives of veterans who have returned home. Areas in which there is a...

(The entire section is 223 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

Read about Japanese internment camps in the United States during World War II. Write a one-week diary from the point of view of a teenager...

(The entire section is 301 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Guterson himself declares that his greatest influence was Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird (1954; see separate entry), that he...

(The entire section is 915 words.)

Related Titles

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Snow Falling On Cedars is Guterson's first novel. His first publication was nonfiction; Family Matters: Why Home Schooling Makes...

(The entire section is 140 words.)


(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Snow Falling On Cedars became available on two audio cassettes from Random House Audiobooks in 1995. A major motion picture from...

(The entire section is 35 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Novels for Students)

Snow Falling on Cedars was adapted to audio by Random House in 1998. The abridged version is narrated by B. D. Wong, and the...

(The entire section is 106 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)

"David Guterson," in Contemporary Authors Online, The Gale Group, 2000.

"David Guterson,"...

(The entire section is 456 words.)


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Bloom, Harold, ed. David Guterson’s “Snow Falling on Cedars.” Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2004. A collection of essays covering multiple critical approaches to Guterson’s popular novel Snow Falling on Cedars.

Brantley, Jenny. “Clorox the Dishes and Hide the Books: A Defense of Snow Falling on Cedars.” In Censored Books II: Critical Viewpoints, 1985-2000, edited by Nicholas J. Karolides and Nat Hentoff. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2002. This chapter in a book on censorship and literature examines the representations of Japanese internment camps, Japanese Americans, racism, and censorship in Snow Falling on Cedars.


(The entire section is 239 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

Guterson's The Country Ahead of Us, the Country Behind (1989) is a collection of ten short stories about middle-class suburbia. This...

(The entire section is 228 words.)