1. Kabuo's trial provides a framework for the plot of the novel and becomes an extended metaphor for issues of justice and injustice. Which are the most important judicial issues raised in the text? In Snow Falling on Cedars, is justice served both legally and morally?
2. Discuss the symbolism of snow, particularly during the trial, as well as the role of other types of weather experienced throughout Snow Falling on Cedars. How does Guterson use this weather motif to characterize various but interrelated themes found in the text?
3. Snow Falling on Cedars is often characterized as "a novel of place." What are the significant places in the text? What occurs in each? Compare and contrast the mood and tension found in the various settings and the role each provides in both character and plot development.
4. How does the novel's title characterize and symbolize the major themes of Guterson's text?
5. Guterson told People magazine that, as a writer, "I want to explore philosophical concerns." What are the major philosophical concerns in Snow Falling on Cedars? Guterson differentiates between "asking questions" and "providing answers." What questions does he raise in the novel, and why doesn't he answer the questions he asks?
6. Racism is a central theme of the book. Which characters are most guilty of racist actions? Racist thoughts? Is there a difference? Are the Nisei, American children with Japanese parents, guilty of any form of racism? Are their parents?
7. Is Snow Falling on Cedars primarily a novel about a lost life, lost land, or a lost love? How are the threads of these diverse story lines woven together to provide the truth at Kabuo's trial?
8. Compare and contrast Guterson's description of the Japanese internment with that presented in Farewell to Manzanar, by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James Houston. Focus on the perceptions that the different generations of Japanese-Americans had of the American government. How has this experience subsequently shaped their lives?
9. Snow Falling on Cedars is considered literary fiction. What distinguishes literary fiction from popular fiction? Which elements of literary fiction are best illustrated in the novel? What other contemporary novels are classified as literary fiction?
10. Compare and contrast the character development of the protagonist in Snow Falling on Cedars with that in The Shipping News, by E. Annie Proulx. Besides both being newspapermen, what do Ishmael Chambers and Quoyle have in common, particularly because both are the unlikely heroes of their respective tales? Why were both Snow Falling on Cedars and The Shipping News literary award winners?
11. Guterson has admitted the influence that Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, his favorite book, has had on his life and his writing. What are the strongest similarities between Snow Falling on Cedars and To Kill a Mockingbird, and how does Guterson use Lee's text as a springboard for his own storytelling?
12. Although Snow Falling on Cedars is set in 1954, some of the thematic issues play an important role in society today. Do the issues raised in the novel transcend time and place and therefore affect the present, or is the novel depicting a part of history that has no direct bearing on contemporary society?
13. What is the significance of Ishmael's name? As a character, how is he related to the narrator of Moby Dick and the Old Testament brother to Isaac, son of Abraham?
14. Snow Falling on Cedars appears to focus primarily on male characters — Kabuo, Ishmael, Carl — but two women play pivotal roles. Determine the significance Hatsue and Etta have in the events that transpire, particularly how the novel's past pertains to its present time. How do Hatsue and Etta reflect the role that women have in their respective societies?
15. What is revealed and/or explained in the last line of Snow Falling on Cedars: "Accident ruled every corner of the universe except the chambers of the human heart," and why is it significant that Ishmael had this understanding?
16. Guterson tells several stories in one in Snow Falling on Cedars: Hatsue and Ishmael's romance; Kabuo's trial; the effect of World War II on the men who served; the treatment of the Japanese on San Piedro, particularly during World War II; Hatsue's coming to terms with her ethnicity; and the land struggle between the Heines and the Miyamotos. Choose one of these story lines and answer the following questions. If Guterson had told only this story, how would the novel have been different? How would it be the same? Could Guterson tell only one story without bringing in the others? Would the ending be different? Would you perceive any of the characters differently?
17. If you were a member of the jury, would you have voted Kabuo guilty or not guilty? Why or why not? Remember that as a jury member you have no knowledge of the lighthouse records or of any conversations outside the courtroom. Concentrating only on the testimony and the questioning, assign and defend your verdict.
18. Kabuo, a Japanese-American, fought Germans during the war; Carl, a German, fought the Japanese during the war. Why did Guterson choose to have these characters fight against the opposite racial group? If Kabuo and Carl had fought against men who shared their own ethnic backgrounds, how might their relationship have been different? Would Kabuo's guilt be greater if he'd killed other Japanese?
19. Guterson makes no mention of the atomic bombing of Japan in Snow Falling on Cedars, yet in 1954 all the characters would be painfully aware of the way the war ended. Why does Guterson omit that aspect of World War II? How would the story be different if he had included the bombing? How would the characters, especially the island's Japanese and people like Etta Heine, be different?
20. Compare Nels Gudmundsson with Ishmael Chambers. How are the men alike? How are they different? Although they both reluctantly help Kabuo, are their motivations ultimately the same? Would either man feel differently if Kabuo were a White man? What if Kabuo was White and Carl Japanese? Would Nels act differently if Kabuo hired him? Would Ishmael react differently if Kabuo wasn't Hatsue's husband? As Nels and Ishmael ultimately come to grips with the reality of their lives, how are their responses and choices similar or different?