Guterson, David 1956–

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Editor: Tracey L. Matthews
Date: 2006
Concise Major 21st Century Writers
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Biography
Pages: 5
Content Level: (Level 4)

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About this Person
Born: May 04, 1956 in Seattle, Washington, United States
Nationality: American
Occupation: Novelist
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Guterson, David 1956–

PERSONAL: Born May 4, 1956, in Seattle, WA; son of Murray Bernard (a criminal defense attorney) and Shirley (Zak) Guterson; married Robin Ann Radwick, January 1, 1979; children: Taylor, Travis, Henry, Angelica. Education: University of Washington, B.A., 1978, M.A., 1982. Hobbies and other interests: Hiking, hunting.

ADDRESSES: Agent—Georges Borchardt, Inc., 136 East 57th St., New York, NY 10020.

CAREER: Writer. High school English teacher in Bainbridge Island, WA, 1984–94.

AWARDS, HONORS: PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, Folger Shakespeare Library, Barnes & Noble Discovery Award, and Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award, all 1995, all for Snow Falling on Cedars.


The Country ahead of Us, the Country Behind (stories), Harper (New York, NY), 1989.

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

Snow Falling on Cedars, Harcourt Brace (San Diego, CA), 1994.

East of the Mountains, Harcourt Brace (San Diego, CA), 1999.

Our Lady of the Forest, Knopf (New York, NY), 2003.

Contributor to periodicals, including Harper's, Sports Illustrated, and Gray's Sporting Journal.

Snow Falling on Cedars has been translated into twenty-one languages.

ADAPTATIONS: Snow Falling on Cedars was adapted as a motion picture starring Max Von Sydow and Ethan Hawke, Universal, 2000, and as an audiobook by Random House Audiobooks, 1995. Selections from The Country ahead of Us, the Country Behind were recorded by Random House Audiobooks (New York, NY), 1996. East of the Mountains was adapted as an audiobook, BDD Audio, 1999.

SIDELIGHTS: Although David Guterson made his literary debut in 1989 with the collection of short stories The Country ahead of Us, the Country Behind, it was not until his first novel, Snow Falling on Cedars, was published five years later that the world took notice of the clean-living English teacher from the Pacific Northwest. The debut novel, which recounts the trial of a Japanese man for the alleged killing of a Caucasian fisherman in 1954, became a phenomenal best-seller and winner of the prestigious PEN/Faulkner Award. It sold more than two million copies in the United States alone, was translated into twenty-one languages, and resulted in a motion picture of the same title, starring Ethan Hawke and Max Von Sydow. Guterson's subsequent novels, including East of the Mountains and Our Lady of the Forest, have further demonstrated the depth of his talent and his ongoing concern for addressing universal and timeless moral issues in his writing.

The son of a criminal defense attorney and a homemaker, Guterson and his two brothers and two sisters grew up on the north end of Seattle, Washington. Guterson spoke fondly of the region to Bill Donahue of Book: The woods nearby were like "Valhalla, the land of the giants. We'd go into them, my friends and I, and get completely lost. Or we'd eat blackberries and wander around with stains on our faces." He and his friends were also active in the Boy Scouts, though their popular name for the den was "Plastered Plums," which reflected their long hair and countercultural bent. Although as a child Guterson liked to read, he did not consider becoming a writer until his junior year of college, after he was inspired by the teacher of a short-story writing class. There his teacher "emphasized that stories really matter, that when people read stories they are transfigured by them. That spoke to me," the novelist told John DiConsiglio in an interview in Literary Cavalcade. One day Guterson "went to the library and after an hour of working on this story," he recalled to Donahue, "I thought 'This is fun.' And I knew that it was also meaningful, useful. I knew from my own life as a reader how powerful stories are—how they shape human values." During summers Guterson had worked with the Forest Service fire-fighting crew, and he at first planned to become a firefighter, but as his interest in writing grew, he decided to become an English teacher and writer because he felt the work of teaching would enrich his writing efforts.

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Shortly after his wife, Robin, gave birth to the first of their four children, Guterson and his family moved to an old bungalow on Bainbridge Island in Puget Sound, which then was home to some 8,000 people, but by 2000 would boast an upscale population of 20,000. For a decade Guterson taught English at Bainbridge Island High School and wrote in the early mornings after walking his dog. Writing in an eclectically decorated study, Guterson was happy if he managed to write 250 words per day. This desire to pen le mot juste, he explained to Donahue, "goes back to 'In the beginning was the word.' We constitute our world using words, and the more accurate the words are, the more clarified the world is. Getting it right feels almost like a holy act."

Guterson's first published fiction is contained in The Country ahead of Us, the Country Behind, a collection of short stories; his first nonfiction work is Family Matters: Why Homeschooling Makes Sense, a profile of the homeschooling movement with a discussion of the impetus for its growth. The couple home-schooled their own four children, gradually transitioning them into the public schools. Guterson does not see home-schooling as right for everyone, but he believes that people should have the option.

He wrote his debut novel, Snow Falling on Cedars, over a decade, stopping midway to pen Family Matters. Among his inspirations for the novel were a photographic exhibit depicting the one-hundred-year history of the Japanese-American community of Bainbridge Island, including their deportation and internment in California camps during World War II. "I was quite moved by the photo exhibit, in particular by seeing in those photos the faces of people I knew, which gave history a real face, which made history come alive, which made history real," he told Bob Edwards in a radio interview published on the National Public Radio Web site. Another was Harper Lee's classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird, which Guterson presented each year to his high school students. One reason Guterson's novel required ten years to complete was his effort to maintain historical accuracy.

With much of its action taking place during the 1940s, Snow Falling on Cedars tells the story of Caucasian teen Ishmael's enduring love for a Japanese girl, Hatsue, on the fictional island of San Piedro in Puget Sound. The format of a later courtroom drama in which Hatsue's husband, Kabuo, is accused of murdering a Caucasian fisherman over a land dispute is the jumping off point for numerous omniscient flashbacks that tell a nuanced story of love in spite of prejudice, the internment of the Japanese, the horrors of World War II in the Pacific, and the recurrent struggle to do what is right. In the process, Ishmael comes to terms both with his losses and with his father's legacy of high moral standards.

By all accounts, Guterson's efforts paid off handsomely, bringing him fame and critical acclaim, and making him a millionaire through books sales and the sale of movie rights. Reviewers praised his characterizations, courtroom scenes, historical accuracy, and lyrical descriptions of the Pacific Northwest. Time reviewer Pico Iyer called the novel a "beautifully assured and full-bodied story" that is also "unusually lived in, focused and compassionate." Several critics voiced qualified praise, including Tom Deignan of the World and I, who wrote that while Snow Falling on Cedars is "often long-winded,… Guterson had a lush, rugged landscape and good old courtroom drama to serve as the book's sturdy spine." In the opinion of William Swanson, writing in Minneapolis-St. Paul magazine, Guterson "provides one of the most vividly realized physical settings this side of McCarthy's Tex-Mex landscapes. His development of the book's large cast is equally exhaustive, but not so effective." Booklist reviewer Dennis Dodge praised the novel as "compellingly suspenseful on each of its several levels."

After the success of Snow Falling on Cedars, Guterson felt some pressure to produce another best-selling literary novel: "When it comes time to sit down and write the next book, you're deathly afraid that you're not up to the task," he told Alden Mudge for BookPage. "That was certainly the case with me after Snow Falling on Cedars."

By now Guterson had quit his teaching job to devote himself full-time to writing. When the once athletic writer began suffering from back trouble while still in his mid-thirties, he began to grapple with issues surrounding aging, and these thoughts led to his next work of fiction. East of the Mountains is an older man's tale, a mythic journey in the ancient concept of romance as quest. In it readers follow the story of retired physician and widower Ben, who, suffering from colon cancer, plans to commit suicide while on a hunting trip and make his death appear to be an accident. During his three-day journey to the semiarid steppe desert of eastern Washington State, Ben encounters challenges and meets strangers who make him reconsider both his grief and his choice to end his life. "Guterson's prose is spare and powerful," Tony Freemantle remarked of the 1999 novel in the Houston Chronicle.

Like Snow Falling on Cedars, East of the Mountains employs numerous flashbacks to add depth to the story Page 1587  |  Top of Articleline. Using this technique, Guterson "manages in a few words to paint a vivid picture of the physical and moral landscape through which Ben travels and, in a series of flashbacks seamlessly woven into the narrative, of the path through life he has already navigated," explained Freemantle. Instead of snow, the main symbolism in East of the Mountains pertains to apples, a famous produce crop for Washington state as well as a recurring symbol in literature, including King Arthur's legend, the Judeo-Christian story of the fall from grace, and the golden apple of Greek mythology's Trojan War.

The setting of East of the Mountains is a desert-like landscape that recalls the biblical tradition of the Christian hermits. "When Guterson is at his best, the story and the landscape nearly become one," wrote New York Times Book Review critic Robert Sullivan. The critic went on to praise the author's "smooth and pleasing and often sensual" prose and favorably compared his combination of story and setting to that of Wallace Stegner. For his part, Guterson explained to Mudge that in formulating his novels, he starts with a "love of place, which seeks expression, which wants to use me to express itself…. It's almost as if I'm compelled to sing these places."

While some critics found East of the Mountains less engaging than Guterson's debut novel, others recognized a development in the author's style. In East of the Mountains Guterson intentionally cultivated a leaner prose style because he believed it more in keeping with the novel's themes and subject matter. Calling Guterson a "prodigious storyteller," Quadrant reviewer Sarah Barnett noted: "Guterson words his pages sparsely, evoking emotions economically. He is able to weave a sort of eloquent beauty into suffering. The very humanness of loving and losing, the bittersweet sense of being parted from a soulmate, is captured on the pages of East of the Mountains." Bennett concluded, "Its simplicity makes it no less rich in the writing and no less rewarding in the reading" than Snow Falling on Cedars.

Continuing to explore the novel format, in 2003 Guterson published Our Lady of the Forest. The novel focuses on Ann, a runaway teenager, who is one of four main characters in the story. When the troubled teen has a vision of the Blessed Virgin Mary while picking mushrooms in a Pacific Northwest forest, her vision sets in motion a chain of events that transforms the area around North Fork, Washington, into an unflattering portrait of modern U.S. society. According to a Kirkus Reviews critic, Our Lady of the Forest is a "witty fable of faith, greed, purity, and hope" told in a manner that is "sharp and incisive without a trace of cynicism or credulity." A Publishers Weekly reviewer predicted that the "gloominess of this uncompromising novel" might put off some readers, but that Guterson's story would conversely attract others because of its "intensity." In Time Iyer voiced appreciation for this gloom, seeing in it a return to the traditions of American fiction embodied in the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Our Lady of the Forest presents "an unflinching picture of Hawthorne's descendants in the wake of [rock star] Kurt Cobain," Iyer noted. "More than that, it shows Guterson to be a serious and searching craftsman, very much in the American grain and determined to take himself further."

Guterson once commented: "I write because something inner and unconscious forces me to. That is the first compulsion. The second is one of ethical and moral duty. I feel responsible to tell stories that inspire readers to consider more deeply who they are." Although his life changed in a material sense as a result of the success of Snow Falling on Cedars, he has taken those changes in stride. His status as a well-known author "doesn't matter. It might be entertaining for my fifteen minutes, but I'm ephemeral," he told Book interviewer Donahue. "What lasts I hope, are my books. Stories will always matter—stories that present human beings in crisis, deciding how to confront their struggles, how to be fully human. Stories deliver us the heroes of the common people. Without them, we wouldn't have culture. We wouldn't know who we are."



Contemporary Novelists, 7th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 2001.


Antioch Review, winter, 2000, Carolyn Maddux, review of East of the Mountains, p. 116.

Atlanta Journal-Constitution, April 18, 1999, Diane Roberts, review of East of the Mountains, p. L11; May 30, 1999, Don O'Briant, "Seeds of 'Cedars': Guterson Deals with Fallout of Success," p. K12.

Book, May, 1999, review of East of the Mountains, p. 77; March-April, 2000, Bill Donahue, "Living in His Landscape, the Northwesterner Looks East of the Mountains with His New Novel"; November, 2000, p. 10.

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Booklist, September 1, 1992, Denise Perry Donavin, review of Family Matters: Why Homeschooling Makes Sense, p. 14; August, 1994, Dennis Dodge, review of Snow Falling on Cedars, p. 2022; January 1, 1999, review of East of the Mountains, p. 792; June 1, 1999, review of East of the Mountains, p. 1797; September 15, 2000, Karen Harris, review of Snow Falling on Cedars (audio version), p. 262.

Books, summer, 1999, review of East of the Mountains, p. 20.

Christian Science Monitor, May 6, 1999, Kendra Nordin, review of East of the Mountains, p. 20.

Economist (United Kingdom), June 19, 1999, review of East of the Mountains, p. S14.

English Journal, October, 1997, Donna C. Neumann, review of Snow Falling on Cedars, p. 112; March, 1999, John Manear, review of The Country ahead of Us, the Country Behind, pp. 118-119.

Entertainment Weekly, December 29, 1995, Dave Karger, "David Guterson," p. 55; April 23, 1999, review of East of the Mountains, p. 56.

Gentleman's Quarterly, May, 1999, Thomas Mallon, review of East of the Mountains, pp. 112-115.

Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), April 24, 1999, review of East of the Mountains, p. E4.

Guardian (London, England), June 2, 1999, Nick Wroe, review of East of the Mountains, p. T16.

Houston Chronicle (Houston, TX), May 16, 1999, Tony Freemantle, review of East of the Mountains, p. 22.

Hungry Mind Review, winter, 1999, review of Snow Falling on Cedars, p. 11.

Kirkus Reviews, January 15, 1999, review of East of the Mountains, p. 88; July 15, 2003, review of Our Lady of the Forest, p. 927.

Library Journal, July, 1989, Francis Poole, review of The Country ahead of Us, the Country Behind, p. 109; September 1, 1992, Hilma F. Cooper, review of Family Matters, p. 186; August, 1994, Sheila Riley, review of Snow Falling on Cedars, p. 129; February 15, 1999, review of East of the Mountains, p. 183; September 15, 2001, review of Snow Falling on Cedars, p. 140; June 1, 2003, Rebecca Stuhr, review of Our Lady of the Forest, p. 166.

Literary Cavalcade, January, 1998, John DiConsiglio, "Mountain Main" (interview), pp. 4-5.

Los Angeles Times, May 9, 1999, Jonathan Levi, review of East of the Mountains, p. 2; December 12, 1999, Patrick Goldstein, "Snow Falling on Cedars Was No Simple Screenplay," p. E1.

Maclean's, June 21, 1999, review of East of the Mountains, p. 52.

Minneapolis-St. Paul, April, 1996, William Swanson, "When 'Snow' Turns to Gold," pp. 30-32.

New Republic, February 8, 1993, Alan Wolfe, review of Family Matters, pp. 25-32.

Newsweek, December 18, 1995, Malcolm Jones, Jr., "Snow on Top," p. 72.

New Yorker, May 17, 1999, Joyce Carol Oates, "Off the Road: A Strange Journey through the Pacific Northwest," pp. 89-91.

New York Times, April 9, 1999, Michiko Kakutani, "Distracting Detours in the Hunt for a Final Exit," p. E47; December 22, 1999, Stephen Holden, "Prejudice Lingers in the Land of Mists," p. E5.

New York Times Book Review, September 3, 1989, Lois E. Nesbitt, review of The Country ahead of Us, the Country Behind, p. 14; October 16, 1994, Susan Kenney, review of Snow Falling on Cedars, p. 12; May 9, 1999, Robert Sullivan, review of East of the Mountains, p. 16.

New York Times Upfront, November 15, 1999, "No Snow in Texas," p. 7.

Observer (London, England), June 6, 1999, review of East of the Mountains, p. 11.

People, March 13, 1995, Joanne Kaufman, review of Snow Falling on Cedars, p. 31; March 4, 1996, Kim Hubbard, "Out of the Woods" (interview), pp. 89-90.

Publishers Weekly, May 26, 1989, Sybil Steinberg, review of The Country ahead of Us, the Country Behind, pp. 54-55; July 13, 1992, review of Family Matters, p. 42; August 1, 1994, review of Snow Falling on Cedars, p. 70; January 11, 1999, review of East of the Mountains, p. 51; April 5, 1999, John Blades, "David Guterson: Stoic of the Pacific Northwest," pp. 215-216; May 3, 1999, review of East of the Mountains, p. 35; July 28, 2003, review of Our Lady of the Forest, p. 75.

Quadrant, December, 1999, Sarah Barnett, review of East of the Mountains, p. 85+.

Spectator, May 8, 1999, Katie Grant, review of East of the Mountains, pp. 34-35.

Time, September 26, 1994, Pico Iyer, review of Snow Falling on Cedars, p. 79; April 26, 1999, review of East of the Mountains, p. 98; November 10, 2003, Pico Iyer, review of Our Lady of the Forest, p. 93.

Time Canada, May 3, 1999, Pico Iyer and Andrea Sachs, review of East of the Mountains, p. 57.

Times Literary Supplement, June 11, 1999, Bill Brown, review of East of the Mountains, p. 23.

Wall Street Journal, April 23, 1999, David Byers, review of East of the Mountains, p. W7.

Washington Post Book World, May 2, 1999, review of East of the Mountains, p. 3.

Woman's Journal, June, 1999, review of East of the Mountains, p. 16.

World and I, September, 1999, reviews of East of the Mountains, p. 242, and Tom Deignan, "A Farewell," p. 256.

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BookPage, (May 10, 2003), Alden Mudge, "Guterson Offers a Moving Story of One Man's Final Pilgrimage."

National Public Radio Web Site, (January 3, 2002), Bob Edwards, transcript of Morning Edition interview with Guterson.

Printed Matter, (November 12, 1995), Elisabeth Sherwin, "New Writer Thanks Harper Lee for Leading the Way."

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2590000291