It feels like the narrator of Snow Falling on Cedars has clambered up one of those cedar trees and perched there so s/he can monitor the characters and events that take place from a healthy distance. As a result, the tone is removed and non-judgy—kind of appropriate, no, given the focus on courtroom proceedings and journalism (both of which are at least supposed to be unbiased)?
The book's extensive descriptions of the snowstorm and its impact provide lots of good examples of this tone. We get a whole bunch of information about a lot of events and people with very little extra commentary. Here is just one snippet:
The citizens of San Piedro made their run on Petersen's and cleared the shelves of canned goods. They brought so much snow into the store on their boots that one of the box boys, Earl Camp, stayed busy all afternoon with a mop and a towel, cleaning up after them. Einar Petersen took a box of salt from his shelf and spread its contents outside the door, but two customers slipped despite this. Einar decided to offer free coffee to shoppers and asked one of his checkers, Jessica Porter—who was twenty-two and cheerful looking—to stand behind a folding table and serve. (17.7)
See the kind of chilly detachment the narrator has from everything s/he is describing? People are slipping on floors (yikes, bad) and offering coffee (aw, nice), but it's all just reported without editorializing (as we've been doing with these parentheticals… we'll stop now).
World War II and its aftermath are central to the major plot points in this novel, shaping the book's central love stories (between Hatsue and Ishmael and Hatsue and Kabuo) and driving the fear and racism that contribute to Kabuo being put on trial. Although San Piedro itself is fictional, Japanese internment was quite real, as was the camp where Hatsue and Kabuo are imprisoned, Manzanar.
In addition, we get a gritty fictionalized account of the Battle of Tarawa (an actual event) through Ishmael's eyes. Beyond just giving us historical detail about the battle, Ishmael's account vividly portrays the gruesomeness of war and its impact by bringing our protagonist into contact with its horrors. The best historical fiction takes an accurate account of historical events and ups the ante by throwing in characters we care about, and that is certainly Guterson's idea here.
Well, a snowstorm dominates the present-day timeline, and cedars and cedar wood are all over the place as well. As we've already mentioned elsewhere (see "Symbols"), snow and cedars are both pretty important symbolically. Snow seems to be associated with the unpredictable nature of life and its freak occurrences that place the human race at their mercy—you know, kind of like what war and love do to the characters.
Meanwhile, cedars have a happier meaning, associated with Ishmael's swoony memories of Hatsue and the limited sexy times he got to have with her. As we know, life's unpredictable ways end up "falling" hard on these happy times between Ishmael and Hatsue, so the title Snow Falling on Cedars seems pretty apt.
Ishmael caps off the story with a couple of conclusions he's come to about life and love. First, he has realized that "[t]he heart of any other, because it had a will, would remain forever mysterious" (32.81). Additionally, he concludes that "accident ruled every corner of the universe except the chambers of the human heart" (32.82).
So, apparently Ishmael has realized that everything that happens outside of yourself is basically luck of the draw; individual free will is the only thing that is not accidental. To make matters worse, this will is not something you can understand or know about another; in Ishmael's view, the heart of another human being is always going to be a mystery. Ishmael learned this the hard way; while there was a murder trial going on, he remained preoccupied with solving the mystery of Hatsue's heart—and failed miserably.
Although the ending might not give you the warm and fuzzies, it definitely reflects Ishmael's acceptance of the reality that surrounds him, which seems like a crucial step in his quest to get back to living in the present rather than basking in a cedar-shaded past. Also, it provides some hope that the human heart, when properly directed (like, perhaps toward justice?) can help combat the forces of pure accident and bad luck.
Set in 1954, almost a decade after the end of World War II, the story takes place on the fictional island of San Piedro in Washington state, whose only town is Amity Harbor. San Piedro is described as "an island of five thousand damp souls" (1.7), and Amity Harbor as "an eccentric, rainy, wind-beaten sea village, downtrodden and mildewed" (1.9). As we've already discussed elsewhere (see "Symbols"), weather is kind of a big deal in this novel, symbolically and plot-wise, and we definitely get that sense early on in Guterson's descriptions of the landscape: "Rain, the spirit of the place, patiently beat down everything man-made. On winter evenings it roared in sheets against the pavements and made Amity Harbor invisible" (1.9). Sounds… er, delightful? At least Guterson is getting us amply prepared for a wet, depressing ride.
Of course, the island has its pretty points as well: "San Piedro had too a brand of verdant beauty that inclined its residents toward the poetical. Enormous hills, soft green with cedars, rose and fell in every direction. The island homes were damp and moss covered and lay in solitary fields and vales of alfalfa, feed corn, and strawberries" (1.10). Hmm, we see that cedar has already been mentioned as one of the truly positive and beautiful aspects of the scenery; we'll have to keep that in mind and head back to the "Symbols" section to think about that some more.
The islanders are traditionally pretty insular, which might explain why the island is such a fertile breeding ground for bigotry and prejudice. Tensions are still running high between the island's Japanese American and non-Japanese American residents in the wake of World War II (despite the fact that it's been nearly a decade since the war ended). These tensions are at the very crux of the novel's central trial.
Bottom line: life is hard in San Piedro, but there are flashes of beauty and joy there as well. In that way, our setting fits the themes and plot pretty well—don't you agree?
Epigraph #1: "In the middle of the journey of our life I came to myself within a dark wood where the straight way was lost. Ah, how hard a thing it is to tell what a wild, and rough, and stubborn wood this was, which in my thought renews the fear!"—Dante, The Divine Comedy
Epigraph #2: "Harmony, like a following breeze at sea, is the exception."—Harvey Oxenhorn, Tuning the Rig
The first quote is the very first line of Inferno, the first section of Dante's The Divine Comedy. For some Shmoopy analysis of this exact quote, click here. Basically, the speaker (Dante, the narrator) has found himself kind of lost and off the beaten path—a.k.a. the path of righteousness, a.k.a. God's way. Where is he headed? Well, the title (Inferno) probably gave that one away...
We don't have to think too hard to find the parallels between this quote and the novel. As in Dante's poem, the protagonist of Snow Falling on Cedars finds himself far afield from his original life path. Instead of marrying Hatsue and living happily ever after, which is what he had hoped to do, Hatsue is forced to leave San Piedro once the U.S. enters the World War II. Then, Ishmael enters the "inferno" of war itself, enduring unspeakable horrors.
When that's all over, minus an arm and rejected by Hatsue, Ishmael finds it hard to follow in his dad's footsteps and develop into the kind of scrupulously moral man his father (and primary role model), Arthur Chambers, had been. Somehow, after all he's seen and been through, his morality is all out of whack. In short, Ishmael endures a couple of different "infernos" in this novel, and definitely (like the speaker of Dante's poem) ends up hopelessly off-track.
The second epigraph is a line from author and academic Harvey Oxenhorn's account of his travels with a scientific whaling expedition. It fits in nicely with the first epigraph, since it's basically trying to get at the idea that life's path is rarely easy or, to use Dante's word, "straight." A "following wind," which would help speed you along in your chosen direction on the water, is not easy to come by—and neither is "harmony," Oxenhorn asserts.
Given the novel's central focus on sailing and strife, this epigraph seems pretty dead on to us. (Oh, and fun fact for you, Shmoopers: Poet Robert Pinsky, who did the afterword for the latest edition of Tuning the Rig, also produced one of the more celebrated translations of the Inferno—curiously, though, not the translation Guterson used for the other epigraph.)
This is a long book that demands some level of awareness of the history of World War II (and fishing life—there's a lot of boat talk), or at least a willingness to engage with the subject matter. That said, the language is pretty clear and accessible, and the style is straightforward and very readable. All in all, Snow Falling on Cedars is an engaging and informative read—so start climbing.
The narration switches back and forth nimbly between the characters' memories and the present day. The device of the trial is largely responsible for this fluidity; when characters testify during the present-day timeline, their testimony directs the narrative seamlessly back into the past. Once we're in the characters' memories, we actually get far more background and psychological detail than they are probably offering to the court.
Take, for example, Etta Heine. While she's testifying about the land dispute between her family and the Miyamotos, she takes us back to the day she and her husband got word of the enforced detention of San Piedro's Japanese and Japanese-American residents. While we're in her memories, we get some pretty personal details about her emotions and conflicts in their marriage, as well as the facts that were relevant to the trial:
"It's too bad," he said. "It ain't right."
"They're Japs," answered Etta. "We're in a war with them. We can't have spies around."
Carl shook his head and, heavy as he was, swiveled in his chair to face her.
"We ain't right together," he told Etta flatly. "You and me, we just ain't right."
She knew, indeed, what he meant by that. But just the same she didn't answer. Anyway, he had said this sort of thing before. It didn't hurt very much. (9.68-72)
We don't know how much of this story came out in Etta's actual testimony and how much just remained in her head, but the point is that Guterson's narrative goes beyond relying on character testimony to get the dirty details about the past; it actually takes you back in time and into the minds of the characters to get at their thought processes and emotions (as well as their recall of events).
We know, the title totally gave that one away, right? Yeah, there's a lot of snow in this book. As if all the trial drama weren't enough for you, there's a wicked snowstorm hitting San Piedro, which manages to make life messy for basically everyone. The electricity goes out, the roads are bad, and everyone is at the mercy of nature for the time being.
Of course, snow's not just there to look pretty and make life difficult for the characters—trust us, these characters have it hard enough already. It's also a big honking metaphor for forces that are beyond one's control, for the unpredictable nature of life. Guterson makes this pretty obvious when he describes the islanders' attitudes toward the snow:
Those who had lived on the island a long time knew that the storm's outcome was beyond their control. This storm might well be like others past that had caused them to suffer, had killed even—or perhaps it might dwindle beneath tonight's stars and give their children snowbound happiness. Who knew? Who could predict? If disaster, so be it, they said to themselves. There was nothing to be done except what could be done. The rest—like the salt water around them, which swallowed the snow without any effort, remaining what it was implacably—was out of their hands, beyond. (17.11)
So, you see, the snow isn't really just snow; it symbolizes all the outside forces that intrude on the lives of the characters, over which they have often have little to no control. Sound familiar? It probably should. After all, Kabuo has been imprisoned for a crime he didn't commit, largely on account of prejudices he had no part in creating (as well as a kind of striking amount of bad luck). His whole life has been turned upside down as a result of the bogus charges, and he's at the mercy of a racist jury that thinks his quietness and reserve are signs of guilt and being a jerk. Yikes.
Then, of course, there's the fact that the Japanese American inhabitants of San Piedro were forcibly detained during World War II, even though they had had nothing to do with Pearl Harbor. That's a serious "forces beyond your control" sitch', if you ask us, and it's had long-lasting repercussions for the characters.
Sorry to be a downer about everyone's favorite form of precipitation (what, you were going to vote for hail?), but snow is a lot more than a pretty face in this story.
Cedar is quite literally everywhere in the book; you can't go too many pages without a reference to the trees themselves or something that's made out of cedar wood (for example, it seems that everyone's house is made out of cedar on San Piedro).
Beyond that, cedars and their smell—and, in fact, a particular cedar tree—have tremendous significance for Ishmael. In the hollowed-out base of a cedar tree where they hid as children, Ishmael and Hatsue canoodled and carried on their secret romance:
Inside their cedar tree, for nearly four years, he and Hatsue had held one another with the dreamy contentedness of young lovers. With their coats spread against a cushion of moss they'd stayed as long as they could after dusk and on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. The tree produced a cedar perfume that permeated their skin and clothes. They would enter, breathe deeply, then lie down and touch each other—the heat of it and he cedar smell, the privacy and the rain outside, the slippery softness of their lips and tongues inspired in them the temporary illusion that the rest of the world had disappeared; there was nobody and nothing but the two of them. (12.3)
Ishmael associates cedars with the life he had before the war—that is, before he lost Hatsue (and his arm)—and it's a life he misses a lot. Also, given that he frequently mentions the smell of cedars in particular, and since we know smell is the sense most powerfully associated with memory, perhaps we can go out on a… limb (pardon the pun) and say that cedars are also a larger symbol of memory in general and the way it haunts us. After all, the number of references to things made out of cedar is probably only matched by references to the past.
Don't think that snow is the only weather condition that gets a shout-out. Fog is a key player, too—particularly on the night of Carl Heine's death. First and foremost, it's notable from a plotting standpoint, as it created poor visibility out on the water that night. The fog was ultimately the reason the freighter ended up crossing the waters where Carl was fishing, and it obscured Carl's accident from the view of others.
Beyond its basic significance to the plot, though, the fog becomes symbolic of all things unknowable and ghostly, representing (in a larger sense) knowledge that is beyond our grasp. You kind of get that vibe in the narrator's description of Kabuo's fishing trip on the night of Carl's death, just before he runs into Carl:
Tonight, he knew, was what old-timers called ghost time, with fog as immobile and dense as buttermilk. A man could run his hands through such a fog, separating it into tendrils and streamers that gathered themselves languidly once more into the whole and disappeared seamlessly without a trace. […] It was possible on such a night to become as disoriented as a man without a torch in a cave. (27.32)
Not only does this reference to "ghost time" provide some bangin' foreshadowing of Carl's unfortunate demise, it also links the fog (and all the blindness and obscurity that it creates) to the great beyond—you know, the big question mark in the sky. Man, the weather really does do some symbolic heavy lifting in this book, no?
Able to zoom back and forth in time with ease, or move seamlessly from a flashback into the person's present-day testimony, our narrator is about as omniscient as they come. In fact, sometimes s/he just floats away from the characters and gives us a bird's eye view of what's happening at the level of the town, or even the whole island.
Take, for example, when a snowstorm basically causes mass chaos:
On Mill Run Road Mrs. Larsen of Skiff Point ran her husband's DeSoto into a ditch. Arne Stolbaad overloaded his wood-burning stove and ended up with a chimney fire. The volunteer fire department was called out by a neighbor, but the pumper truck driver, Edgar Paulsen, lost traction on Indian Knob Hill and had to halt to put on tire chains. In the meantime Arne Stolbaad's chimney fire expired; when the firemen showed up at last he expressed to them his delight at having burned clean the flue creosote. (17.2)
(By the way, that's just a small snippet of the details we get about Superstorm San Piedro '54—those kinds of details go on for several paragraphs.)
So, you get our point—our narrator is high in the sky (where apparently it's snowing a lot), looking down on all the characters and weaving from location to location and mind to mind (often using free indirect discourse to take us into characters' thoughts) and from past to present. Whew, and we're tired just thinking about walking through all that snow.
Although the story is pretty ensemble-oriented and focused primarily on the Miyamoto trial, it's fair to say that the protagonist is the reporter Ishmael Chambers. Despite the fact that he's not the one on trial for his life, he begins the tale feeling pretty sorry for himself. You see, he's in love with the defendant's wife, Hatsue, and has been since he was a teenager. Unfortunately, World War II intervened in their teen romance, and Hatsue was sent off to an internment camp.
Soon after Hatsue left, Ishmael headed off to war and experienced a lot of truly horrific things, including the loss of an arm. Like the other veterans in the novel (for example, Kabuo Miyamoto and the man he supposedly murdered, Carl Heine, Jr.) he's never really recovered from the war. In addition, he still seems fixated on Hatsue—even though she's been married with children for some time (and, in related news, doesn't want to have a thing to do with him).
In short, Ishmael is really suffering when the novel begins, with all the memories from his teen and war years flooding back on account of the trial.
Despite an early desperate attempt to get Hatsue to lean on him (which is our first clue that Ishmael and Hatsue have a past), Ishmael mostly behaves himself and plays it cool in the courtroom. While watching the trial, he sorts through his past memories of his teen romance with Hatsue—but, again, he's behaving himself and keeping it together.
However, as the trial wears on, we find that Ishmael is pretty paralyzed by his enduring feelings for Hatsue. For example, when Ishmael comes across Hatsue and her father stranded on the side of the road and offers them a ride, Ishmael starts spiraling into some pretty (self-) destructive behavior.
During the car ride, Hatsue is cold and distant—although she does speak to Ishmael long enough to suggest that he write about how unfair the trial is in his paper. The exchange gets heated when Ishmael basically suggests that unfairness isn't news, since that's kind of the default state of things. Hatsue fumes, but Ishmael is so twisted that he feels pleased about just having gotten to talk to her and gotten a reaction. So, yeah, he really isn't able to see past his own obsession to glimpse the bigger picture: that Hatsue is A) married and B) not interested in being buddies and-or lovers.
Upon leaving Hatsue and her father, Ishmael heads to the local coast guard office, where he finds evidence that would exonerate Kabuo. However, he decides to sit on it and focus instead on writing that news story that Hatsue wanted so she will see that he's on her side. He never says so outright, but it seems that he's hoping the trial will remove Kabuo as a barrier to his happiness (real nice, Ishmael). It's not looking so good for Kabuo, in that case, since the jury seems inclined to convict, when they start deliberating the next day...
But back to Ishmael's evening with his mom: mother and son have a heart-to-heart, and Helen calls out her son for being so down in the dumps and refusing to move on with his life after the war. Um, yes—that advice is well-timed.
Alongside all this action, we get Ishmael's devastating memories of when he and Hatsue returned after the war, which was perhaps Ishmael's lowest point, psychologically.
Ishmael eventually gets it together and realizes that he needs to let Hatsue go (perhaps it occurs to him that Kabuo doesn't deserve to get executed because Ishmael is hot for his wife). So, he brings the new evidence he found to light, which ultimately leads to the charges against Kabuo getting dropped. Kabuo gets to go home to his wife and kids, and Ishmael decides to break free from his past and move forward
Local fisherman Kabuo Miyamoto is on trial for allegedly killing fellow fish-catcher Carl Heine, Jr. The book opens on Day 1 of the trial, with the prosecution making its case. We hear lots of evidence against Kabuo, some of which seems pretty convincing, but we also get the sense that there's a lot of prejudice against Japanese Americans that's figuring into the mix.
A reporter named Ishmael Chambers is reporting on the trial, and it appears that he has a history with the defendant's wife. Through flashbacks, we learn more about their romance as teens and their ultimate separation when WWII broke out (flashbacks take us through the details that people are testifying about, too).
On Day 2 of the trial, the court hears from Sterling Whitman, a hematologist; Susan Heine, Carl Jr.'s wife; and Sergeant Victor Maples, who trained Kabuo in hand-to-hand combat. Let's just say their testimony doesn't do Kabuo any favors (of course, it's not supposed to—they're witnesses for the prosecution). Things are getting pretty dicey for the defendant...
The prosecution rests and, because there's an island-wide power outage due to a snowstorm, the judge decides to adjourn until the next day. Having spent a good portion of the trial thinking about Hatsue and the war (to the point where you wonder how he's going to know enough about the trial to report on it), Ishmael gets some supplies together and heads out on some errands, including a visit to the local coast guard office to get information about past storms that he can use for a piece on the current one.
He also plans to check in at his mom's house to make sure she's faring okay in the storm. On the way, he sees Hatsue and her dad stranded by the side of the road and ends up giving them a ride home.
When Ishmael gets to the coast guard office, he suddenly realizes (while once again thinking about Hatsue) that there might be something in their records that is relevant to the Miyamoto trial.
Sure enough, he finds evidence that a freighter went through the fishing area on the night of Carl Heine's death, right around the time Carl went into the water. Ishmael realizes that the waves coming from the boat could have easily caused Heine's boat to rock enough to knock him overboard.
He pockets the relevant records and heads out to his mother's. As the day ends, however, we learn that he has no intention of handing the records over to the court just yet. Instead, he seems to be planning to sit on it, maybe see how the trial goes and curry favor with Hatsue by writing an article that highlights how unfair the proceedings have been to her husband.
So, yeah, this section of the book is a turning point in terms of the trial (because we are now really certain that a murder didn't occur at all), but it's also revolutionary in terms of how we view our protagonist. Withholding the evidence is, to put it mildly, a pretty big moral booboo.
The next day, the defense makes its case and presents enough information to create reasonable doubt that Kabuo Miyamoto is guilty. Of course, we already know he's probably not guilty thanks to Ishmael's sleuthing, so it's not hugely exciting for the readers in that sense—we're just waiting for the whole thing to unravel when Ishmael finally gives in the evidence.
The lawyers present their closing arguments, and the judge reminds the jury that they have to be absolutely sure Kabuo is guilty of murder beyond a reasonable doubt and absolutely sure that the murder was premeditated.
Even though it seems pretty evident that there is reasonable doubt based on the testimony, all but one juror wants to convict Miyamoto. However, that one juror is holding tight, convinced that he hasn't seen enough evidence to convict.
Meanwhile, that evening Ishmael hangs out again at his mom's house, continuing to go down memory lane. After a trip out to the hollowed out cedar tree where he and Hatsue used to meet in secret when they were teenagers, Ishmael decides to give up carrying a torch for Hatsue and goes to her parents' house immediately. He hands over the evidence that suggests no murder was committed at all.
In the morning, in an effort to bolster their case for getting the charges against Kabuo dropped, Hatsue and Ishmael head out to Art Moran and ask him to check Carl's boat for a lantern lashed to the mast (which Kabuo mentioned in his account of his interactions with Carl on the night Carl died). They show him the records from the coast guard office to support their case for searching for additional evidence that might exonerate Kabuo.
When they search the boat, they don't find the lantern, but they do find evidence that there was a lantern (and some blood, too, which corroborates Kabuo's assertion that Carl had a cut on his hand). Before the morning is out, the jury has been dismissed, and the charges against Kabuo have been dropped. Ishmael returns to his office to write up the story. And that's a wrap.
The trial of local fisherman Kabuo Miyamoto opens in the winter of 1954. Miyamoto is accused of having murdered another local fisherman, Carl Heine, in the fall. We learn a lot about the characters and the events relevant to the trial through flashbacks. We also get the back story of a local reporter, Ishmael Chambers, and details about his relationship with the defendant's wife, Hatsue, when they were teenagers.
The trial moves into Day 2 with more testimony for the prosecution. The prosecution rests at the end of that day, right after a snowstorm knocks out the power on San Piedro (the island where the story is set). After court recesses for the day, Ishmael heads out to do some research at a local coast guard office for a story on big storms (and to visit his mama, too).
While doing his storm research, he realizes he should dig around for any information that could be relevant to the Miyamoto trial (since the alleged murder took place out on the water). Within just a few minutes, he finds information that could potentially exonerate Miyamoto. He's not compelled to do anything with it, though, probably because he's still pretty interested (romantically) in Kabuo's wife.
We enter Day 3 of the trial, when the defense makes its case. Enough evidence comes to light to raise reasonable doubt, but when the jury finally enters deliberations, they are almost unanimous in wanting to convict.
Meanwhile, Ishmael finally gets it together and realizes he needs to come forward with that evidence he found in the coast guard office. That touches off a chain of events that end with Kabuo being exonerated and returned to his family. Ishmael, meanwhile, returns to his office to write up the story of the whole thing, having (finally) given up on pursing Hatsue.