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Free Study Guide-Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson-Book Notes
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SHORT PLOT SUMMARY (Synopsis)

Kabuo Miyamoto, a Japanese-American citizen, is on trial for the premeditated, first-degree murder of Carl Heine, a local fisherman. It is December 1954, only 9 years after the end of World War II. On the small, fictional island of San Piedro off the coast of Washington state exists a community of immigrant strawberry farmers and fishermen. However, a great rift exists between the Anglo and Japanese-American islanders.

On the witness stand, Sheriff Art Moran relates how he and his deputy pulled Carl Heine’s body out the net of Carl’s boat. During the autopsy, Horace Whaley, the island coroner and a war veteran, likened the head injury Carl sustained to those inflicted by the gun butts of Japanese soldiers trained in the art of kendo, or sticking fighting. After an investigation, Sheriff Moran arrests Kabuo for the murder of Carl Heine. The sheriff learned that there was a land feud between the Miyamoto and Heine families.

On the witness stand, Etta Heine tells the jury how Carl’s father, Carl Sr., agreed to sell 7 acres of land to Kabuo’s father, Zenhichi. Kabuo’s father had made all but 2 payments when the Miyamoto family was sent to an internment camp. Carl Sr. insisted the last payments could wait until the Miyamotos returned to the island. However, while the Miyamotos were interned and Carl Jr. was serving in the war, Carl Sr. died, and Etta sold the land to local farmer Ole Jurgensen. Etta objected to the sell of the land to the Japanese. She openly showed her prejudice against the island’s Japanese citizens. When she decided to sell the land, she felt no obligation to honor the arrangement her husband made with the Miyamotos.

Sheriff Moran also learned that Ole Jurgensen had recently put up for sale the farm land that used to belong to the Heines. Carl and Kabuo both offered to buy the land, but Kabuo’s offer came after Ole and Carl had already made arrangements for the sale of the land. The sheriff also learns that Kabuo has been trained in kendo and was in his youth the best kendo fighter on the island. This information coupled with the fact that a battery and a mooring line similar to those used on Kabuo’s boat were found on Carl’s boat provided motive and evidence for Kabuo’s arrest.


Nels Gudmundsson, Kabuo’s court-appointed attorney, is an elderly man with many ailments. However, he is a competent and knowledgeable attorney, who seeks to show that Kabuo had nothing to do with Carl’s death. Gudmundsson seeks to show that the evidence substantiates Kabuo’s account that he helped Carl the night of his death by providing him with a battery after Carl’s battery died. In fact, it was during this act of kindness at sea that Carl agreed to sell Kabuo the 7 acres of land, so Kabuo had no reason to kill Carl.

Watching in the gallery are Hatsue, Kabuo’s wife, and Ishmael Chambers, a war veteran and owner of the local newspaper. In their youth, Hatsue and Ishmael had a secret relationship. Their love would have been frowned upon by the community, particularly their parents. Hatsue was taught that she had to live among the hakujin, or whites, but she should not become involved with them. But, she disregarded this advice, and for years, she and Ishmael secretly met. Hatsue struggles during this time with feelings of love for Ishmael but, at the same time, knows their love is not right. Their relationship ended when Hatsue and the other Japanese islanders were sent to internment camps. However, Ishmael never stopped loving Hatsue. After losing his arm in the war, Ishmael cynicism rules his life, and his love for Hatsue turns into hatred. This hatred is contrasted with his hope of getting Hatsue back. Ishmael’s feelings for Hatsue almost prevent him from disclosing to Hatsue the evidence that will lead to the dismissal of charges against Kabuo.

While searching for information for a news story, Ishmael discovers that a freighter large enough to create a wake that could throw a man overboard passed through the area in which Carl Heine was fishing. For a day, Ishmael tells no one of the evidence he has found. He cannot help but think that this might give him a second chance with Hatsue if Kabuo is jailed. However, Ishmael’s conscious will not allow it. He shows Hatsue the shipping records. This leads to a re-inspection of Carl’s boat. During this inspection, they find rope on the mast where Carl hung a lantern when his boat was without power. They also found blood and hair where Carl hit his head when he fell from the mast trying to take the lantern down when the wake of the passing freighter hit his ship. Based on this evidence, the charges against Kabuo are dismissed.

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