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David Guterson Biography

novel kabuo snow island

Nationality: American. Born: Seattle, Washington, 1956. Education: University of Washington, B.A. 1978, M.A. 1982. Career: High school English teacher, Bainbridge Island, Washington, 1984—. Agent: Georges Borchardt, Inc., 136 East 57th Street, New York, New York 10020, U.S.A.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

Snow Falling on Cedars. San Diego, Harcourt Brace, 1994.

East of the Mountains. New York, Harcourt Brace, 1999.

Short Stories

The Country Ahead of Us, the Country Behind. New York, Harper, 1989.

Other

Family Matters: Why Homeschooling Makes Sense. New York, Harcourt Brace, 1992.

* * *

David Guterson acknowledges that a few of his early short stories owe a debt to the basic, naturalistic style of Raymond Carver; however, he continues, "You mature, your sensibilities become refined, you find your own voice." Nevertheless, Guterson established several characteristic techniques in his early pieces which carry over into his novels, suggested by the collection's metaphoric title, The Country Ahead of Us, the Country Behind. The "country" is the Pacific Northwest, the setting for most of his stories and his subsequent novels, Snow Falling on Cedars and East of the Mountains, while "ahead" and "behind" refer to the very lives of his protagonists, who recall salient events in their past through Guterson's use of flashback. In the stark, tough short stories about fathers and sons, brothers and buddies, a nostalgic adult recalls a boyhood adventure, usually involving hunting or fishing or some other self-test against nature, but leading to personal discovery. In the novels, Guterson's detailed descriptions of vast landscapes or intimate interiors achieve a atmospheric sense of place, and the single flashback of the short story deepens to complicated time strata; both enhanced by Guterson's now characteristic extended, meticulous research, acknowledged by lengthy lists in the novels. These techniques partially account for the phenomenal runaway success of Snow Falling on Cedars, which sold over three million copies, followed by a movie directed by Scott Hicks and starring Max Von Sydow and Ethan Hawke.

Set in December 1954 on a fictionalized San Piedro Island in Puget Sound, the novel seems, at first, a classic courtroom drama compounded by a long ago forbidden interracial romance which hints at a present-day love triangle. But, beneath the serene snow-muffled island and within its inhabitants simmers a matter-of-fact racial bigotry now exacerbated by the trial of Japanese-American Kabuo Miyamoto, accused of murdering fellow islander and salmon fisherman Carl Heine, found tangled in his boat's gill net. Kabuo and local newspaper reporter Ishmael Chambers were childhood playmates, but Ishmael and Kabuo's wife, Hatsue Imada were playmates and, then, teenage lovers before World War II and before Ishmael lost his arm in battle and she suffered internment with other Japanese-Americans at Manzanar in 1942.

Not surprisingly, Guterson acknowledges Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird as a thematic influence, but in Snow Falling on Cedars, he uses his characters' courtroom testimonies to create a complex multileveled narrative evolving through serial flashbacks from the courtroom of the present to the retold incident pertinent to the trial to an evoked personal memory and often to a retelling of an historical event, such as Ishmael as participant in and witness to the Allied invasion against the Japanese on the South Pacific island of Betio. Alongside this intricate technique, Guterson increases the novel's suspense by withholding Kabuo's version of events, a standard detective novel ploy. Although some label the omniscient narrative voice as "leaden," Guterson's skillful use of these personal histories enlarges the novel, for it allows him to relate the history of the island while taking the reader beyond the three-day courtroom trial into the lush, yet often harsh, environment of the Pacific Northwest, which comes alive as if a character in both the novels.

Outside Amity Harbor's overheated courtroom, a severe blizzard wraps itself around the island eventually knocking down power lines and testing everyone's resolve as heat dissipates and cars run off iced roads. Guterson is at his best as he captures a warm, languid excursion of Kabuo's family or the ripe, sweet strawberry fields during picking time. The sensual encounters of Ishmael and Hatsue in their secret hollowed-out cedar tree contrast sharply with those of the married Hatsue and Kabuo in her family's sheet-divided room in Manzanar before he goes off to kill Germans, an act for which his guilt will have repercussions during the trial. Although some argue that the sex scenes achieve little, particularly because they replace dialogue and narrative, for the reader, they resonate years later as reminders of the characters' and the island's loss of innocence during World War II. Throughout Guterson's evocative descriptions, the reader is aware of the treacherous immediacy of the sea, the unwritten code of the men who man the fishing boats and their animosity towards the island's Japanese-Americans, especially Kabuo who turned to salmon fishing in lieu of farming the land he believes Heine's mother has cheated him of; his obsession with the lost land provides the motive for the alleged murder.

At one point, Guterson set aside writing this novel to complete Family Matters: Why Homeschooling Makes Sense. Hailed as an honest evaluation of the educational method Guterson himself, then a high school teacher, chose for his children, he describes a classroom visit by his father, a criminal lawyer, clearly the model for Nels Gudmundsson, the aging, ailing defense attorney in Snow Falling on Cedars. In his trial summation, Gudmundsson calls for the jurors to overcome the human frailties of hate and irrational fears; he urges them to try Kabuo as an American, to use reason, not prejudices left over from the war. Any flaws in the novel lie in the swift ending to trial and book. Ishmael, heretofore emotionally numb, heeds Gudmundsson's exhortation and provides the court with newly discovered evidence.

In his second novel, East of the Mountains, Guterson uses the same techniques of flashback and precise descriptions to create a philosophical novel; however, his own analysis identifies a leaner, more understated style. His protagonist is Seattle cardiac surgeon Dr. Ben Givens, a seventy-three-year-old, recent widower diagnosed with terminal colon cancer. As the title suggests, the "country" is east of Puget Sound into the desert and apple regions of the Columbia Basin, an area Guterson hunted and hiked as a youngster as did his protagonist. As in Snow Falling on Cedars, a front map guides the reader through the unknown territory which Guterson describes in beautiful, lyric detail. Notwithstanding a loving daughter and family, Givens has devised, what some critics have called inexplicable, a plan to commit suicide making it look like a hunting accident; thus, he meticulously creates a home scene suggesting his return and sets off from Seattle in his 1969 International Scout with his Winchester and his two Brittanies during a torrential downpour. As expected, Givens's plan goes awry, for the novel is, as Guterson says, "squarely in the genre of the mythic journey."

As a writer, Guterson believes that his role is to create fiction which addresses human needs and sustains the culture's themes and central myths. He likens East of the Mountains to Don Quixote since, in both, older men undertake quests which follow the conventions of the mythic journey. Ben Givens travels, Guterson continues, beyond his ordinary life "into some strange place… [where] he can ultimately resolve whatever question drove him to leave in the first place." Along the way Givens encounters strangers and incidents which test him physically and emotionally and which prompt memories, developed through lengthy flashbacks, that humanize any of his character's mythic traits. The flashbacks bear the mark of Guterson's research, including a trip to Italy's Dolomites for the recounting of young Givens's World War II experiences.

After the blockbuster success of Snow Falling on Cedars, apprehension increased Guterson's "sense of being challenged" as he prepared to write East of the Mountains. As a result, his style matured through his individualized voice and refined sensibilities, thus verifying his earlier identification by critics as a talent to watch.

—Judith C. Kohl

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