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Free Study Guide-Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson-Book Notes
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The novel is set on San Piedro Island, a small island north of Puget Sound in the Washington state area. The island setting is a fitting in several ways. The people of San Piedro Island have everything they need on the island; they are self-sufficient. Additionally, on a small island like San Piedro everyone knows everyone else. This works well in a novel where past history and relationships are integral to the story. The islanders are not simply neighbors, but employers and employees, family and friends, lovers and enemies. The relationships between the island citizens are intimate because of their proximity to each other. Arthur Chambers, the owner of the local island newspaper, finds the island lifestyle to be good and bad -- good because people are careful not to step on each other’s toes, but bad because many feelings are repressed to avoid creating tension and strife. But the reality is that tension is exactly what exists between the two races that inhabit the island. Both white and Japanese races have everything they need to sustain their own culture and way of life on the island, but each race is isolated and even seeks isolation from the other, just as the island is isolated from the mainland because of the surround waters.

The time period is also important. It is December 1954, less than a decade from the end of World War II. Fear, racism, and hatred of the Japanese are still fresh in the minds of many white Americans. And the Japanese are still seeking to rebuild their lives after being forced into internment camps. The social and political climate intensifies the already existing tensions between the races.


Major Characters

Ishmael Chambers

The childhood boyfriend of Hatsue Miyamoto, who is still in love with her. He is a war veteran who lost his right arm. He became the local reporter when he took over the island newspaper, the San Piedro Review, when his father died. He discovers the evidence to prove Kabuo’s innocence. Ishmael struggles with his love for Hatsue and the cynicism he has developed as a result of losing his arm in the war.

Carl Heine

A war veteran turned fisherman that drowned when his boat was hit by the wake of a freighter. He was a childhood friend of Kabuo Miyamoto. Carl was a silent man that was well-liked in the community. Shortly before his death, he made arrangements to buy back his father’s strawberry farm. He was married to Susan Heine and had three children. His parents were Carl Sr. and Etta Heine.

Kabuo Miyamoto

A Japanese-American accused of the premeditated, first-degree murder of Carl Heine. He was a childhood friend of Carl Heine. His family worked as sharecroppers on the Heine’s strawberry farm until there internment at the Manzanar camp. Kabuo is determined to get back the land that was taken from them while they were interned. He served in the United States Army in World War II to prove his loyalty to the U.S. He carries the guilt of having killed 3 people during the war. He is married to Hatsue and has three children.

Hatsue Miyamoto

Kabuo Miyamoto’s wife and childhood girlfriend of Ishmael Chambers. Throughout her youth, Hatsue struggles with reconciling her Japanese identity and lifestyle while living on American soil. She marries Kabuo after being moved to the Manzanar internment camp and ending her relationship with Ishmael Chambers.

Minor Characters

Arthur Chambers

Ishmael’s parents. Before his death, Arthur was a respected man in the community. As a newspaperman, he was loyal to his profession and principles. Throughout the novel, Ishmael and others compare him to his father.

Judge Lew Fielding

He presides over the trial of Kabuo Miyamoto. He acts with fairness and justice and explains points of law thoroughly and simply. Though he seems sleepy-eyed and distracted, he is aware of what is taking place in his courtroom. In his instructions to the jury, he emphasizes that they cannot convict Kabuo if reasonable doubt exists.

Nels Gudmundsson

Kabuo’s 79-year-old court-appointed attorney. Though elderly and ailing, he is a competent and knowledgeable attorney.

Etta Heine

Carl Heine’s mother. She is the one character who is openly prejudiced, making her an unsympathetic character. She objected when her husband agreed to sell 7 acres of land to the Miyamotos. After her husband died, she sold the land while the Miyamotos the internment camp.

Alvin Hook

The prosecutor. He portrays Kabuo as a cold-blooded killer. He appeals to the jury's prejudices throughout the trial.

Fujiko Imada

Hatsue’s mother. She strongly encourages her daughters to retain their Japanese identity and reject the lifestyle of the hakujin, or whites. She finds out about Hatsue’s relationship with Ishmael and forces her to end it.

Art Moran

San Piedro Island’s sheriff. For the first time, he believes he has a crime rather than an accident to investigate. One of his motivations in collecting evidence against Kabuo is to prove to coroner Horace Whaley that he is doing more than just “playing” Sherlock Holmes.

Horace Whaley

The island’s coroner. He served as a doctor in World War I. Horace comments to Sheriff Art Moran that the injury above Carl Heine’s left ear reminds him of a wound inflicted by the gun butts of Japanese soldiers trained in the art of kendo, or sticking fighting.

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