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CHAPTER SUMMARIES WITH NOTES
Snow Falling on Cedars opens in a courtroom where Kabuo Miyamota, a Japanese-American fisherman, sits accused of a crime not yet revealed. As Miyamoto inwardly regards the beauty of the “wind-whipped” snow against the large courthouse window, outwardly his stoic, controlled appearance is regarded by his fellow islanders and the jurors as showing a remote, distant quality that could be interpreted as “disdain” or a “veiled a fear.” The respect the citizens hold for the law and the American justice system pervades the courtroom with a solemn air.
It is December 1954, on the small island of San Piedro off the coast of Washington state. Its only town, Amity Harbor, provides all that the fisherman and farmers of the island need. Something not understood by the out-of-town reporters covering the trial. They had a contempt for the island citizens that was not shared by the island’s local reporter, Ishmael Chambers. Ishmael knew Kabuo and his wife, Hatsue. But, despite their acquaintance, Hatsue refuses to speak to him while sitting on a hall bench outside the courtroom. Turning her eyes from him, she simply replies, “Go away,” to his repeated inquiries.
Guterson quickly thrusts his readers into the courtroom setting on a small island in the midst of a snowstorm. The trial acts as a fitting metaphor in which to ask questions of justice, truth, prejudice, and racism in a community of Anglos and Japanese- Americans soon after World War II.
The snow lofting against the courtroom windows symbolizes the characters and their respective situations. The snow’s beauty captivates Miyamoto, but the fact that he cannot feel or touch this beauty represents his isolation from the community as a man on trial. The fact that the snow is wind-whipped shows the fragility of Kabuo and his relationship with community in which he lives. In contrast, as Ishmael regards the snow, he hopes it snows “recklessly.” However, the recklessness, according to Ishmael, will somehow bring to the island an “impossible winter purity’ that he remembers from his youth. This contrast of recklessness yielding purity provides a foreshadowing of Ishmael’s internal struggles with the present-day proceedings and his past relationship with Hatsue.
The snow is contrasted against itself: lofted, wind-whipped, and yet capable of beauty and purity. The snow is also contrasted with the stifling heat of the packed, solemn courtroom. These contrasts symbolize the contrasting tensions that exist in the community. Through these contrasts, Guterson causes us to question whether a balance can be struck between the isolating, lofting snow falling outside and the solemn, heated courtroom.