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The major theme of the novel is the detrimental effects of racial prejudice. The government, legal system, and the majority of the white citizens of San Piedro treat the Japanese islanders as second-class citizens worthy only of distrust. Racial prejudice had a part in the arrest of Kabuo for murder.
Racial prejudice also prevented Ishmael and Hatsue from loving each other. Hatsue ends their relationship because she does not believe they can overcome their differences in the racial climate of World War II.
Another theme in this novel is the physical and emotional effects of war. The atrocities of war leave the characters unable to communicate and feeling ineffective and guilty. Throughout the novel, Guterson shows how war creates emotional and physical obstacles to communication, happiness, and love.
Snow Falling on Cedars is written in a melancholy mood that complements the sobering murder trial in the midst of a snowstorm and the character’s memories.