Snow Falling on Cedars

by David Guterson

Start Free Trial


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 800

San Piedro Island lies in the Straits of Juan de Fuca, north of Puget Sound and Seattle, Washington, and just south of the U.S.-Canada border. San Piedro is a small island with a population of about five thousand people, mostly farmers and fishermen. Its largest town is Amity Harbor, which houses a few businesses and is the center of the local government.

A substantial number of Japanese have lived on the island since 1883, when they began to settle in as growers, especially of strawberries, and as fishermen. The Japanese have since had a congenial but somewhat separate existence from the white population of the island. Their children, however, have attended the same schools, and their daughters routinely win the title of queen during the annual strawberry festival.

The bombing of Pearl Harbor in Hawaii by Japan, which brought the United States into World War II, and the subsequent panic along the West Coast of the United States, changed everything in the community. The relocation of the inhabitants of Japanese ancestry to Manzanar internment camp in California, and military service of the local men in the Pacific theater, fighting the forces of the Imperial Japanese military, further distanced the two groups. After the war, residual racism and prejudice against the local Japanese who had returned to San Piedro continued.

It is now 1954. Local fisherman Carl Heine is not on his boat, the Susan Marie, when it is found in the early morning, adrift in White Sand Bay with its lights on. Sheriff Art Moran and his deputy arrive to investigate. They subsequently find Carl, dead, when they haul in the boat’s nets. Carl’s body is tangled in the nets and has a bruise on its head. Adding to the mystery is how the boat had been found—with all of its lights on and carrying a wrong-sized battery in its hold—suggesting to Art that something is amiss.

Soon, Kabuo Miyamoto, a fisherman who was on the water the night or early morning that Carl died, is charged with Carl’s death. Investigators discover that the two men earlier had been arguing about a seven-acre plot of land, a portion of a parcel owned by Carl, which Kabuo wanted to buy. The land was once nearly purchased by Kabuo’s family, all of whom were removed from the area and taken to Manzanar before the purchase could be made. For his family’s honor, and for the sake of owning property, Kabuo now wants to buy the same parcel of land. Owning land was once prohibited to the Japanese on the island.

Ishmael Chambers, the local newspaper reporter and a war veteran, was once in love with Hatsue Miyamoto, the wife of the defendant. Ishmael, the son of parents who were more tolerant than others in the community of the Japanese, had fallen in love with Hatsue when they were still children. For both, however, their affection for each other violated the cultural mores of their respective communities. Hatsue broke off their relationship when she and her family were sent to Manzanar, which crushed Ishmael’s heart.

During the war, Ishmael had joined the U.S. Marine Corps. During the invasion of Tarawa Atoll, machine-gun fire had shattered his arm. He returned home an embittered, one-armed man, and after his father’s death, he took over the San Piedro Review, as reporter, printer, and owner. Even living his father’s life, Ishmael clearly did not feel that he was the man his father was. The great test of his life now arrives: He has uncovered information that could free Kabuo.

The trial plays out amid an increasingly severe snowstorm, which douses the lights and isolates people. Attorney Nels Gudmundsson’s defense is convincing, as he teases out the truth from a string of prejudiced witnesses, including Carl’s mother and the coroner. It appears that Kabuo, a decorated war veteran, might get a fair shake, but the community’s prejudice and racism still hangs in the air as the trial goes to the jury.

At the last minute, Ishmael decides to reveal his evidence to the judge. He had discovered a report at the local U.S. Coast Guard facility that offers a more plausible explanation for Carl’s death. The Coast Guard observers had recorded an off-course ship that had plowed through the fishing grounds in the fog the night in question. The ship’s wake could have been responsible for Carl falling from his boat. Following the logic of the report, it now is probable that Carl had hit his head before falling into the water and getting tangled in his fishing nets. Kabuo is found “guilty” of having loaned Carl a battery and of having refused to show in his trial the expected emotion.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

Chapter Summaries