David Guterson looks back 20 years later on ‘Snow Falling on Cedars’

(Courtesy of Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group)
(Courtesy of Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group)

More than two decades ago, David Guterson was a high school English teacher working on a book that would make him famous.

“The novels I’ve published in the wake of ‘Snow Falling on Cedars’ have been inundated by its enduring presence,” he writes in the spring issue of the American Scholar. He’s not complaining or bragging — he’s just reflecting on the curious case of an idealistic young man determined to save the world by writing fiction.

Looking Back, Warily, but With Affection” is a smart, modest essay about literary ambition and the peculiar costs of fame. Guterson recalls some of the potentially disastrous editorial choices he avoided while working on “Snow Falling on Cedars.” At one point he thought “the novel would be best if it didn’t include a trial.” He wanted the title to be “Discord.” His editor told him his “prose style was wooden.”

Laced with self-deprecation, Guterson’s essay describes the singularly self-conscious experience of re-reading his award-winning novel 20 years after it was published. That distance allows him to see the book as he couldn’t have back in 1994. Four million copies later, he can be hard on his best-selling story: “I found conviction and sincerity — which, taken together as a sensibility, missed too much. Where was life as it is? I couldn’t find it very often.” And he notes that in his treatment of race and racism, he was guilty “of pursuing good intentions while wearing weak glasses.”

American Scholar, Spring 2014.
American Scholar, Spring 2014.

But he also appreciates the novel’s humanity and tempered hope.

That’s what I remember from when I read “Snow Falling on Cedars” 20 years ago. Thanks for a great novel, Mr. Guterson, and this opportunity to revisit it.

Here’s the review that ran in Book World back in 1994:

This languid, lulling first novel moves gently along with the dangerous undercurrents of prejudice and fear that trouble the placid surface of life on San Piedro, an insular island of fishermen and strawberry farmers in Puget Sound. It’s the winter of 1954, and in the middle of a violent and beautiful snowstorm, Kabuo Miyamoto, a Japanese-American fisherman, stands trial for the murder of his childhood friend Carl Heine, found floating dead and tangled in his own net after an ethereal, foggy night on the water.

Covering the trial is Ishmael Chambers, editor of the local paper and childhood sweetheart of Kabuo’s lovely, distant wife, Hatsue. As the state builds its case against the defendant, calling on his neighbors to testify against him, Ishmael recalls an idyllic island childhood that culminated in powerful first love, and thinks back on the war (World War II) that cost him Hatsue (exiled, along with the rest of San Piedro’s Japanese community, to an internment camp, which Guterson impressively describes), his arm (a casualty of fighting in the Pacific theater) and any human warmth he once possessed.

Guterson, a Harper’s contributing editor and author of a short story collection (“The Country Ahead of Us, the Country Behind”) and a book on education (“Family Matters: Why Homeschooling Makes Sense”), maps out the difficult topography of the islanders’ complicated relations with one another, their hidden jealousies, resentments, and suspicions, and their surprising if unreliable capacity for generosity of spirit. Himself the resident of an island in Puget Sound, Guterson also keeps a loving eye on the details of both the natural and human world, capturing the moods of sea, forest, and field, and the minutiae of the fishermens’ and farmers’ lives, from the rigging on a gill-netter fishing boat to the rhythms of strawberry picking in summer. — By Jennifer Howard

Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.
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