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PLOT STRUCTURE ANALYSIS
The novel begins with the trial of Kabuo Miyamoto, a Japanese-American accused of murder. But it is through flashbacks that we learn not only how Kabuo came to be accused but of the relationships of the characters to one another and their history together. It is through flashbacks that we learn of the underlying love story of Ishmael Chambers and Hatsue Miyamoto.
Guterson places the trial in the present. Through the proceedings, we learn that Kabuo is accused of murdering Carl Heine over a dispute over land. When his family worked on the Heine’s strawberry farm, Carl Heine Sr. made an arrangement with Kabuo’s father to purchase 7 acres of land. When Carl Sr. died and Carl Jr. was serving in World War II, Etta Heine, an outspoken bigot, sells the land to Ole Jurgensen. Later, Ole decides to sell the land to Carl Heine just hours before Kabuo inquires about purchasing it. Kabuo then asks Carl about purchasing the land. On the night Carl dies, he agrees to sell 7 acres to Kabuo. Circumstantial evidence links Kabuo to Carl’s death, and he is tried for murder. Kabuo is exonerated when Ishmael Chambers comes forward with shipping records that show that the wake of a large freighter threw Carl overboard to his death.
The happenings of the trial are interdispersed with the flashbacks of several characters, particularly Ishmael and Hatsue. Through these flashbacks, we learn that Ishmael and Hatsue had a 4-year relationship in their youth. For Ishmael, Hatsue was his destiny. When she ended their relationship, it devastated him. He subsequently joined the army and losses his arm in the war. The loss of his arm has a profound affect on the rest of his life. He is never able to come to terms with it or losing Hatsue. On the other hand, we learn that throughout their relationship Hatsue has struggled with being Japanese in a white world. She never feels whole with Ishmael and is troubled by the secret life she is leading. Finally, she realizes that obstacles against them are too great and ends their relationship. During her internment, she marries Kabuo. A man of her culture and background that shares her hopes and dreams.
The flashbacks of other characters present the atrocities of war and the terrible toll war takes on the human spirit. The war intensifies the division between the races on the small island, breeding distrust, prejudice, and hatred. The war also takes an emotional toll on the islanders, particularly the men that served. Through the character’s thoughts, we learn how the experience of war makes men silent and unable to communicate and heavily weighed with guilt.
By using the flashback technique, Guterson provides a rich historical and emotional narrative that presents the effects of racial prejudice and the effects of war over several years and through the eyes of many characters.