Snow Falling on Cedars (book)

Title Snow Falling on Cedars
Author David Guterson
Original Publication Date 1994
Awards PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction (1995); Pacific Northwest Bookseller Association Award; American Booksellers Book of the Year Award; Barnes & Nobles Great New Writers Award
WorldCat Link

A World War II veteran reporting for his small town newspaper covers the trial of a local Japanese American man charged with murder while he struggles with his complicated feelings for the defendant's wife, his first love.


The novel opens in the courthouse of the small town of Amity Harbor, on fictional San Piedro Island in the Puget Sound, as the trial of Japanese American Kabuo Miyamoto gets underway. He has been charged with murdering Carl Heine, a local fisherman, whose body was discovered trapped in the fishing nets attached to Heine's boat when it was found drifting in the harbor. Ishmael Chambers, the protagonist, is a journalist who runs the local weekly, and is covering the trial. He also knows the defendant's wife, Hatsue, who refuses to speak to him.

Through a series of flashbacks and tangents, the narrative reveals that the lives of Ishmael, Hatsue, Kabuo, and Carl have all been disrupted and irrevocably altered by the war. Ishmael and Hatsue were secret high school sweethearts, but Hatsue felt that their multiracial love was wrong. They are then physically separated when her family is forced to leave the island and are taken to Manzanar , and Hatsue soon decides to give up on Ishmael and ends up with Kabuo, a "good Japanese boy" as her parents hoped she would. Kabuo and Carl are high school friends, and Kabuo's father worked for Carl's father, but their relationship was also disrupted by the war. When Kabuo's family is taken to Manzanar, they are unable to make the last payment for land his father is buying from Carl's father; Carl's mother refuses to accept the legitimacy of the land deal at all and when Kabuo returns after the war, tells him she has sold the entire property to someone else.

The prosecutor claims that Kabuo premeditated to murder Carl over the disputed property, while the defense attorney pleads with the jury to consider the facts of the case—the evidence is entirely circumstantial—instead of being swayed by their own prejudices. He argues that the prosecution is counting on them to convict Kabuo for looking like the enemy when he in fact is a veteran of the U.S. Army and fought in Europe.

Author Background

David Guterson is a Washington native and was working as an English teacher at a high school on Bainbridge Island in the Puget Sound when he published Snow Falling on Cedars , his first novel, which took him ten years to complete. He has since become a full-time author, drawing on the Puget Sound and his own background for inspiration.

Historical Accuracy

Throughout the trial, the prosecution makes a big deal out of Kabuo's skills at kendo , or stick fighting, and the coroner shares that he remembers being told while fighting in the Pacific that Japanese soldiers were taught a certain kendo technique that they would use with their rifles to hit a man on the side of his head. Kendo is similar to fencing and is a martial art, not a military skill. Saying that someone good at kendo is trained to kill a man would be similar to saying someone good at fencing would be good at killing a man. While not impossible, the purposes are very different.

When the FBI comes to search Hatsue's family's house, they take away anything from the "old country" as well as Hatsue's scrapbook. Although many families did destroy or hide anything associated with Japan out of fear that such things would make them suspect, not all of these things were contraband.

Hatsue's father Hisao is arrested by the FBI for keeping dynamite on his farm and taken first to Seattle, and then to a work camp in Montana. With a very few exceptions, Issei detained by the FBI were held in different camps than the general population, but these were camps administered by the Department of Justice and governed by strict regulations because most of their inmates were enemy aliens and therefore subject to the Geneva Convention. They were not work camps.

Ishmael recalls seeing signs go up on March 21, 1942, issued by the War Relocation Authority , that all "Japanese islanders" would have to leave in 8 days. The exclusion orders , to which this refers, were issued by the Western Defense Command , which was part of the US military, not the War Relocation Authority, a civilian administrative body created for the sole purpose of administering the 10 so-called "relocation centers." It was not involved in issuing or enforcing the exclusion order.

On the third day Hatsue and her family are in Manzanar, a young man shoots his wife and then himself. Hatsue mentions that he must have somehow smuggled in a gun. Considering the multiple searches of luggage that occurred prior to entering camp, while this is not entirely impossible, it is highly unlikely. Also, while double suicides did take place at Manzanar, there were none during this timeframe.

While in Manzanar, Hatsue's mother Fujiko confesses to her that when she first arrived as a picture bride and discovered her new husband was not the rich landowner she had been promised, she wanted to go home but couldn't because her parents had already "sold her and paid a percentage to the deceitful baishakunin [go-between]." Picture brides were not sold into marriage. A wife may have decided not to leave a new husband out of consideration for her family's standing and pride, but not because of money. In fact, many picture brides, upon discovering they had been lied to, did decide to run away from their new husbands.

Fujiko tells Hatsue that she resolved herself to make a life with her husband and to act with dignity, or out of "giri." This is an incorrect characterization of the term "giri," which carries more of a connotation of obligation or duty than dignity.

Background and Response

Snow Falling on Cedars , Guterson's first novel, received high acclaim, and became a bestseller. It was also the recipient of the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction (1995), the Pacific Northwest Bookseller Association Award, American Booksellers Book of the Year Award, and the Barnes & Noble Great New Writers Award. It was on bestseller lists for over a year and has been translated into multiple languages. A movie adaptation was made in 1999 featuring Ethan Hawke as Ishmael Chambers. Due to some explicit sexual content, multiple requests to have it banned from school districts were made, making it among the ALA's 10 most challenge books in 1999.

Snow Falling on Cedars spent 78 consecutive weeks—exactly a year-and-a-half—on Publishers Weekly' s trade paperback bestseller list (October 9, 1995 to April 14, 1997) including 37 weeks at #1. It sold 4 million copies, nearly as many as Danielle Steele's Silent Honor .

Authored by Emily Anderson

Might also like: The Floating World by Cynthia Kadohata; Heart Mountain by Gretel Ehrlich; Why She Left Us by Rahna Reiko Rizzuto

Find in the Digital Library of Japanese American Incarceration

Snow Falling on Cedars

This item has been made freely available in the Digital Library of Japanese American Incarceration , a collaborative project with Internet Archive .

For More Information

"Censorship Roundup: Gig Harbor, WA. School Library Journal (Aug 2003): 22.

Charles, Ron. " David Guterson looks back 20 years later on Snow Falling on Cedars ." Washington Post , Apr. 8, 2014.

Guterson author bio .

Guterson, David. " Looking Back, Warily, But with Affection: Snow Falling on Cedars at 20 ." The American Scholar , Mar. 11, 2014.

Kalinowski, Tess. " Peel board pulls novel after parent complains " The Star , Jan 31, 2007.

Ellen Kanner, Ellen. " ." Bookpage , Jan. 1996.

McKay, Daniel. "Captive Memories: Articulate vs. Disarticulated Silences in David Guterson's Snow Falling on Cedars and Wendy Catran's The Swap ." Comparative Literature Studies 50.4 (2013): 643–69.

Book Reviews

Christian Science Monitor , Nov. 15, 1995, 15.

Dodge, Dennis. Booklist . Aug 1994, 2022.

Harris, Michael. " A Whodunit That Also Offers a Moral Mystery. " Los Angeles Times , Oct. 6, 1994.

Iyar, Pico. Time , Sept. 26, 1994, 78.

Jones, Malcolm Jr. with Ray Sawhill. "'Snow' on Top: A literary first novel is this season's sleeper success story." Newsweek , Dec 18, 1995, 72.

Kenney, Susan. " Their Fellow Americans ." New York Times , Oct. 16, 1994. ["a densely packed, multifaceted work that sometimes hovers on the verge of digressiveness, but in Mr. Guterson's skilled hands never succumbs to the fragmentation that might well have marred such an ambitious undertaking."]

Kirkus Reviews , July 1, 1994.

Publishers Weekly , Sept. 1994.

Riley, Sheila. Library Journal . Aug. 1994, 129. ["The novel poetically evokes the beauty of the land while revealing the lushness of war, the nuances of our legal system, and the injustices done to those interned in U.S. internment camps."]

Last updated Jan. 16, 2024, 1:15 a.m..