Home > English > Advanced > Module C: Representation and Text > Elective 1: Conflicting Perspectives > Snow Falling on Cedars

Snow falling on cedars

This material was written by Lynette Marsh

Getting started
Linking the text to the elective
Influence on characterisation
Tracking the themes
Assessment practice


Study of the set text will be directed by your teacher. This resource is designed to support and extend your work in school. The activities will help to further develop your understanding of the relationship between the module and the set text. Reading the novel carefully is essential if you are aiming for top results.

Syllabus rubrics

“This module requires students to explore various representations of events, personalities or situations. They evaluate how medium of production, textual form, perspective and choice of language influence meaning. The study develops students’ understanding of the relationships between representation and meaning… different versions and perspectives…”

(Refer to English Stage 6 Syllabus page 52)

Elective 1: Conflicting perspectives

“In their responding and composing, students consider the ways in which conflicting perspectives on events, personalities or situations are represented in their prescribed text and other related texts of their own choosing. Students analyse and evaluate how acts of representation, such as the choice of textual forms, features and language, shape meaning and influence responses.”

(read English Stage 6 Syllabus page 52)

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Getting started

Use the following generic approach to the study of the novel to kick-start your thinking about Snow Falling on Cedars.

Basic Questions – Novel Study
Who? What? When? Why? Where? How?
Who is involved? What is happening? When did this happen? Why did this happen? Where did this happen? How many people does this affect?
Who said so? What did happen? When will this happen? Why will this happen? Where will this happen? How does it or will it happen?
Who does/did the situation affect? What are the choices? When was this discovered?     How much does it cost?
(money – emotional)
  What are the consequences?   How do you feel about this?
What is different as a result?  
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Linking the text to the elective

Snow Falling on Cedars follows the trial of a Japanese-American man, Kabuo Miyamoto, who is accused of killing a Caucasian-American person. The trial occurs over a three day period. However, the structure of the text encompasses a much wider time frame. The witness testimony is used by David Guterson as the vehicle that drives the plot. It is loosely based on real events and Guterson’s experiences of living in the Pacific North West Region of the United States of America. Guterson depicts the conflicting perspectives, which are the colours and cultures of San Piedro, through the tapestry of testimonies.

Snow Falling on Cedars is a circular narrative without a linear timeline. Unlike sequential narratives a sense of completion or conclusion does not originate in a resolution that completes the earlier story. Rather Ishmael’s sagacity is evident when the closing stages of the text returns to the establishing context. Snow Falling on Cedars exemplifies the three basic elements of a circular narrative through the use of flashbacks, framing and a limited point of view in order to reveal events.

Guterson makes a deliberate choice to commence in the middle of the story rather than though a conventional narrative orientation, a technique known as “in medias res”. He uses this device to allow his characters to narrate and identify the conflicting perspectives thematically, directing action through the forum of the court case by using a series of flashbacks or characters relating past events in the courtroom setting. Information is revealed through either the public testimony on the witness stand and/or through a flashback memory that is shared with the reader but not with the other characters. The use of a third person narrative method provides some insight into the thoughts and feelings of the characters and helps to develop suspense and intrigue.

The use of duality, or dichotomy, to compare and contrast throughout the story allows Guterson to explore conflicting perspectives on personal and political levels. These include Japanese American and Caucasian American populations; justice and injustice; truth and inaccuracies; tolerance and prejudice which all raise the question of whether justice is finally served through the legal and/or moral outcomes.

Student Activity: historical connections

  1. Research the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbour, noting the date and effect that this event had on the American people.

  2. Research the Executive Order for Japanese internment issued on the 19th February 1942 by Franklin Roosevelt.

  3. Consider these two events (note the time elapsed between)
    1. To what extent did the emotion associated with these events affect Americans’ perceptions of Japanese-Americans? Justify your response from the historical information.
    2. Read the first paragraph of Snow Falling on Cedars. Select one description of Kabuo Miyamoto and explain how this character description foreshadows the conflicting perspectives to come.
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Foreshadowing can relate to either past or future events. It is an effective devise used by Guterson to frame small episodes, which breaks the reader away from the larger, encompassing narrative and concludes by returning the reader to that larger contextual narrative frame, the three days of the trial.

Clues in the first few sentences of a story or chapter are used to foreshadow and indicate the themes that will be important later.

  1. Consider Guterson’s language choices of word, phrase, and sentence levels in Chapter 1. Identify specific examples of language that appears to offer trivial, irrelevant or minor information but develops a sense of foreshadowing and draws the reader into the story.
  2. How is the impression of community presented through the character descriptions?

Foreshadowing in a circular narrative structure is often used to demonstrate important information which is shared with the reader by the narrator, but not known by other characters. It provides the opportunity to understand the conflicting perspectives, revealed through internal monologues, thoughts and emotions that may not be apparent to characters not directly interacting with each other, e.g. the witnesses in the court case.

Student Activity: foreshadowing

Create a table or a database and progressively add information on how foreshadowing is used to develop context hint at unfolding events or developments in character. Give specific examples and don’t rely on a simple yes or no response.

Are there phrases relating to the future?
Are there phrases relating to the past?
Is there a change happening in the weather, the setting, or the mood?
Are there objects or scenic elements that suggest something happy, sad,dangerous, exciting, etc.?
Do characters or the narrator observe something in the background that mightbe a hint about something to come later?


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Guterson refers to the fictional island of San Piedro found off the coast of Washington State as a community of “five thousand damp souls” (p. 5). The islanders support themselves through salmon fishing and berry farming. The residents live in close proximity to one another but are physically and geographically isolated from the rest of the world. Similarly their lifestyle culturally isolates them from nearby urban areas, such as Seattle. The community is a fragile microcosm exacerbated by the isolation.

The courtroom is not only a centrally located building but exists as a metaphor for the purpose of the novel. It provides a connection between the interrelated themes of injustice, fairness, responsibility and racism. The courtroom brings people together with clearly conflicting perspectives on the role of truth and justice, in their own community and cultural context. Guterson does not provide a final definitive answer to the question of what is just or what is unjust.

Student Activity: views on race

Find specific examples from the text that are representative of the conflicting perspectives between characters in relation to their views on race and cultural identity.

One of the strengths of this authorial strategy is to ensure the novel maintains the discourse on whether racism can and does undermine justice in a court of law. It involves the reader and solicits the responder to make their own judgements rather than having them presented as a judgement determined by the composer, for approval by the responder.

Student Activity: four settings

The setting is divided into four physically identifiable areas: the town of Amity Harbor; the sea; the cedar forest and the strawberry fields.

  1. Each location is central to a different mood within the story. How is this established?

  2. Which characters are associated with each area?

  3. Explain how the locations reflect the community background and how these contribute thematically to the story.

  4. Find a specific example from the text which exemplifies the individual characteristics of each location.

  5. In small groups select one example of the different settings and create a collage or visual representation of that example. Incorporate the significant events or characters associated with that location.


The forest provides the screen and protection for Hatsue and Ishmael‘s relationship. The cedar tree is intimately involved in their secret and provides a sanctuary to escape from the prejudices of society. Dead and hollowed out the tree shelters Hatsue and Ishmael from literal and emotional storms. The decaying tree is an extended metaphor or allegory for their relationship, which must wither and end with no hope of future growth or life. The cedar tree provides both tangible and inferential links throughout the story.

Student Activity: What is an allegory?

An allegory is an interaction between symbols that creates a coherent meaning beyond that of the literal level of interpretation. It acts as an extended metaphor in which persons, abstract ideas, or events represent not only themselves on the literal level, but they also stand for something else on the symbolic level. An allegorical reading usually involves moral or spiritual concepts that may be more significant than the actual, literal events described in a narrative.

  1. In your own words, explain why the cedar tree, as an allegory, is central to the concepts developed in the narrative.

  2. Research Dante and The Divine Comedy at <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dante_Alighieri> (external website)

  3. Guterson uses a quote by Dante from The Divine Comedy as an introduction or foreshadowing of the story. Look deeply into the psyche of Guterson and consider why he wanted to tell this story, particularly about the community in which he lives, and ask why he chose Dante and the quoted extract as an introduction to his work.

  4. Which character would you align more closely to the Dante quote and why?
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The history of each character is made accessible through their relationship to the defendant, Kabuo Miyomoto.Each witness is placed briefly on the stand to give his/her testimony. Therefore, the reader gains different perspectives, often conflicting, based on what the witness has to say and how he/she is intimately related to the case.

Two of the Guterson’s characters are grounded in real life.

Arthur Chambers, the outspoken editor of the local newspaper in San Piedro, is based on real life editor Walt Woodward from Bainbridge Island. Woodward decried the government’s internment policies during WW II. Walt's grandfather helped escaping slaves reach freedom utilising Vermont’s “underground railroad”. Guterson taught at Bainbridge High School for 10 years and during that time he wrote Snow Falling on Cedars.
The morally upright, elderly lawyer, Nels Gudmundsson, who defends Kabuo Miyamoto was modelled on Guterson’s own father. Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is also a model for Guterson. Racism was also explored through a criminal trial in this novel.

Kabuo Miyamoto is a Japanese-American who is accused of the murder of Carl Heine. He is strong, stoic and married to Hatsue. Kabuo has a temper but is ethical and honest. The accusation of murder is grounded more in racism than in evidence. His efforts to remain calm and controlled during the trial are often mistaken for arrogance and an uncaring nature.

Hatsue Miyamoto is married to Kabuo. As a young girl she was romantically involved with Ishmael Chambers but eventually realised that he was culturally wrong for her and would never be accepted by her family. The love she had for her family and her eagerness to comply with their wishes quelled her love for Ishmael. She considered Kabuo to be a strong, kind man who would make a good husband. A husband her family would accept!

Carl Heine is the dead fisherman. He is a ‘gentle giant’ and considered kind and respectful. He is Caucasian-American and he is married to Susan Marie. He exemplifies the closed-minded, frustratingly passive white residents of San Piedro. Carl is the first San Piedro resident to find the strength to put the past behind him when he sells seven acres of land to Kabuo. However, the irony is that almost immediately after this occurs, he is killed, allegedly by Kabuo.

Ishmael Chambers is the 31 year old editor for the San Piedro Review and is the novel’s protagonist. His failed relationship with Hatsue left him aggrieved and bitter. Ishmael is a war veteran who lost his left arm in active combat. He feels over-shadowed by the ethics of his father’s editorial stance. However, when he finds evidence that can prove Kabuo’s innocence he eventually ‘does the right thing’ and is redeemed as a result.

Student activity: characterisation

Characters can be portrayed in one of four levels. A dynamic character changes as a result of the story’s events. A round character has different character traits, which sometimes contradict one another. A flat character has only one or two character traits, lacks depth and can be described in a few words. A static character changes very little, if at all, during the course of the story.

Direct characterisation reveals a character by describing what his/her appearance personality is like.

Indirect characterisation reveals a character through speech, emotions, actions or thoughts.

  1. Build character profiles using the table below. Include direct quotes and inferred information to explain how each character fits a specific criterion.

    Character Level of characterisation Methods of portraying character Information revealed about character Revealing quotes
    • dynamic
    • round
    • flat
    • static
    • direct
    • indirect
    • direct and indirect
    • by character
    • by others
    • by author



  2. Revisit the Dante quote. Are you able to identify a three-part journey through the Inferno, Purgatory and Paradise by Ishmael?

  3. Do you consider the three-part journey to be an example of conflicting perspectives in the narrative that are inherent in one character? Justify your point of view on this question.

Which character trait fits with the idea of the three-part journey?

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Influence on characterisation

Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird provided some influence in characters, themes and setting for Guterson. Both books explore the theme of race relations in a small town. Neighbours are pitted against neighbours and the resulting paranoia nearly destroys the small town. A criminal trial is used as a vehicle for developing the plot. Here, young people come to terms with love, hate and providence, all of which have the potential to divide and/or unite their communities.

Snow falling on cedars, like To kill a mockingbird, centres on a trial, but once Guterson started writing, he says, it became clear that it would be hard to concoct an Atticus Finch for the 1990s. Ishmael Chambers, who succeeds his father as editor of the island newspaper, comes closest by offering up a key piece of evidence as the trial ends. "Atticus is certain of what he believes, and that kind of certainty hardly exists today", Mr Guterson says. His own characters, on the other hand, do the right thing, but it takes them a while," he adds.

The characters in the novel continuously struggle to exert their free will against impersonal and random forces. These struggles develop conflicting perspectives through circumstances that appear inevitable and unchangeable; the result of human actions and reactions.

Student activity: character influences

Linda Allen wrote a song, in 1989, in response to Walt Woodward’s editorials and the Executive Order 9066.

  1. Visit the website <http://www.lindasongs.com/pages/lyrics/note2.htm (external website)> and read through her lyrics. Explain her sentiments in the closing lines:

    For the sake of the children the story we tell
    We must watch out for cracks in the liberty bell

  2. Consider the three sources; Linda Allen, Gerald Elfendahl and the FatherRyan High School students. Do they assist in developing your understanding of the fundamental reasons why David Guterson felt compelled to write his novel? Explain your point of view.

  3. Throughout the novel Guterson suggests that knowledge and fact is not necessarily the same thing. While the question of Kabuo’s innocence or guilt is answered Guterson leaves the reader with many unanswered questions. Brainstorm those unanswered questions and discuss whether they can be labelled knowledge, fact or both.

  4. Snow Falling on Cedars is considered as “literary fiction.” What does this mean? How do the three texts, above, support the notion of literary fiction?
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Imagery refers to the way writers create mental pictures though words and use these pictures for particular effects. Images can often take on a deeper symbolic or metaphoric meaning in the context of a narrative or poem.

Snow is simultaneously pure and virtuous, as well as, cold and uncaring. It is deceptively beautiful, yet is conflictingly destructive. The falling snow acts as a covering blanket, which provides a sense of cleansing. Alternatively, it can mask the real world underneath. The dualistic nature of snow-frosted trees transfers us to a paradise-like world: silent, elevated, pure and cold. Furthermore, its cold frigidity is representative of characters and the way they are perceived (for example Kabuo in the opening paragraph). We can gain an insight into the psyche of each individual character through their reaction to the snow.

Student activity: themes

  1. Discuss how Guterson uses snow to characterise the themes of the text.
  2. Explain how the storm outside the courtroom symbolises the lives of the characters.

Seasons (winter, spring, summer and autumn or fall) are used to depict the passing of time. The trial only lasts three days, therefore does not transcend an extended period of time. Guterson uses the seasons coupled with flashbacks to establish a loss of innocence for the characters and the island, and to establish the idea of the inevitability of change over time.

Student activity: seasons

Find a specific segment, from the novel, which provides a link between the seasons and youth or maturity.

The Cedar Tree is a literal and metaphorical shelter for Ishmael and Hatsue. It provides freedom from the constraints and prejudices of society.

Student activity: the cedar tree

In your own words explain why the cedar tree has both a literal and figurative role.

There are other examples of imagery in the novel. Critics and reviewers comment on the richness of the symbolism in both developing and enhancing the concepts of racism, justice and morality.

Student activity: imagery

  1. Explain how the title characterises and symbolises the novel’s major themes.

  2. In small groups identify other uses of imagery. Each group should find something different.

  3. Create a short presentation, including visual examples, and share with your class.

The courthouse, Arthur’s chair, the sea, Ishmael’s camera, nature, testimony, character body parts, the boat, the war and the trial and Hatsue’s letter.

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Tracking the themes:

1, 4, 7, 8, 9, 15, 24, 27, 29
1, 8, 9, 14, 20, 22, 30, 31, 32
2, 5, 6, 10, 13, 17, 19, 23, 28, 30, 31
Can you add to this chapter list?

Create your own table to record a list of other themes evident in the novel.
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Assessment practice:

Listed below are some sample extended response writing tasks.

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A History of the Japanese – American Internment (external website), developed by Father Ryan High School students

Book Discussion Kit (external website), Snow Falling on Cedars

Dante’s Divine Comedy (external website),

Dorfman, Ron, The Media and New Nativism (external website) 1986.

Gerald, People’s History (external website) . Remembering Walt Woodward (1910 – 2001).

Guterson, David Snow Falling on Cedars. Bloomsbury/Allen and Unwin 2007.

At Home with: David Guterson (external website) New York Times February 29, 1996.

Random House for High School teachers, Teacher’s guide Snow Falling on Cedars (external website)

Underground Railroad (external website)

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