This is Ishmael Chambers' story. The name Ishmael comes from the Bible; Ishmael is the bastard son of Abraham and Hagar, whose name in Hebrew means "the outcast." After the war Ishmael Chambers had lived in Seattle until the death of his father; then he had returned to Amity Harbor and took over his father's newspaper. As a newspaperman in his own hometown, Ishmael had "kept to himself." Like his namesake, he is an outcast, although his is partially self-imposed. He has "the face of a man willing to wait forever." His life story has three turning points, each one of which propelled him in a very specific direction. In just one of them—the last turning point—he recognizes he does control his own destiny.
Ishmael's first turning point accompanies his first kiss with Hatsue when they are both fourteen. She runs away from it; he "stood up only to watch her go ... He decided then that he would love her forever no matter what came to pass. It was not so much a matter of deciding as accepting the inevitability of it. It made him feel better, though he felt perturbed, too, worried that this kiss was wrong. But from his point of view, at fourteen years old, their love was entirely unavoidable." Five years later the second turning point comes when, as a U.S. Marine recovering from fever and dysentery in a Fort Benning hospital, he discovers how easily people become detached from each other.
He lay in his T-shirt and underwear, and the smell from the open window was of dying leaves and of rain in the dirt and turned fields, and it began to seem to him strangely apt that he lay so many thousand miles from home and so alone in his sickness. It was the kind of suffering, after all, he'd yearned for during the last five months, since receiving Hatsue's letter. It was an easy, sleepy kind of languid fever, and so long as he did not try to move too much or exert himself unnecessarily he could live this way indefinitely. He surrounded himself with his illness thoroughly and embedded himself in it.
But few turning points in an individual's life are a single event; most are a series of related events that evolve into new directions.
On the night before Ishmael Chambers and several thousand other soldiers are to wade ashore at Tarawa, he writes to Hatsue how he was about to go ashore on an island in the South Pacific and that his job was to kill people who looked like her—as many of them as he could ... He said that his numbness was a terrible thing, he didn't feel anything except that he looked forward to killing as many Japs as possible, he was angry at them and wanted their deaths—all of them, he wrote; he felt hatred. He explained to her the nature of his hatred and told her she was as responsible for it as anyone in the world. In fact, he hated her now. He didn't want to hate her, but since this was a last letter he felt bound to tell the truth as completely as he could—he hated her with everything in his heart, he wrote, and it felt good for to him to write it in just that way. 'I hate you with all my heart,' he wrote.'I hate you, Hatsue, I hate you always.' It was at this point that he ripped the sheet from his writing pad, crumpled it, and threw it into the sea. He watched it floating on the water for a few seconds, then threw his pad in after it. Ishmael's heart has grown cold. In the battle itself he will be wounded in his left arm. He will lose the arm on a shipboard operating table to an inexperienced pharmacist's mate pressed into emergency surgery. Like Ishmael's emotional injuries, the wound healed more slowly than it would have otherwise and the scar tissue left behind was thick and coarse. Doped up on morphine and drifting off into sleep, Ishmael will blame "that fucking goddamn Jap bitch" for his predicament.
A dozen years later, when Hatsue Miyomoto's husband is on trial for first degree murder, Ishmael Chambers, while covering the trial for the local newspaper his late father had created, will embark on his third turning point when he discovers the first clue to Kabuo Miyomoto's innocence in the logbook kept by the Coast Guard at the Point White lighthouse. The crew on duty there do their best to protect sailors and ships at sea, "yet there were still accidents, despite everything." The news of these accidents "was received by islanders with a grim brand of determinism; it seemed to many that such things were ordained by God, or at any rate unavoidable." Crowds of sightseers come out to watch the consequences of these accidents; "[T]here was much discussion and finger pointing. Working without a single hard fact, islanders drew a variety of conclusions."
Guterson is expert at maintaining narrative pace. For instance, when Ishmael is at the lighthouse to look at past weather records, to see if any relationship exists between this sudden blizzard and the past, any scene showing him reading the old maritime records would slow the narrative to a crawl. Instead, Guterson has memories—which are always more intimate that coast guard records— intrude. "The room smelled of salt water and snow and of the past—it was full of the scent of lost days. Ishmael tried to concentrate on his work, but the image of Hatsue in the back seat of his car—her eyes meeting his in the rearview mirror— carried him away into his memories." Ishmael remembers meeting Hatsue at a San Piedro market for the first time after the war. "He'd stood in silence, hating her, and she'd turned toward him with a baby on her shoulder and said with a detached formality that she was very sorry to have heard about his arm, how he had lost it in the war." Ishmael, hurt and feeling the effects of a cold and fever, could only hurt her more. "The Japs did it," he told her. "They shot my arm off. Japs." Although he apologized instantly, she left. Ishmael, still pouring over maritime records at the lighthouse in present times, remembers how he went to Hatsue's house in the middle of that night to apologize again, to try explaining his anguish more fully, and how he, a one-armed man, would like to hold her one last time. A married woman with children, she could only rebuff him. "I hurt for you, I honestly do," she told him, "I feel terrible for your misery, but I am not going to hold you, Ishmael. You're going to have to live without holding me. Now get up and leave me alone please." At this point in the narrative, Guterson has Ishmael Chambers in the present realize "that perhaps something pertinent to Kabuo's case could be found right here among these files." Two sentences and fifteen minutes later, Ishmael finds what it was he wanted. He finds the records compiled by Coast Guardsman Philip Milholland that could begin to exonerate Kabuo Miyomoto. An accident—an Act of God—had transpired and that accident caused the death of fellow fisherman Carl Heine. Ishmael discovers that no one knew the truth of the matter . . . Or rather one person, he himself, knew the truth. That was the heart of it.
Suspense is delay, and Guterson has...
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