Acknowledgement: This work has been summarized using the Vintage 1995 edition. Quotations are for the most part taken from that work, as are paraphrases of its commentary.
Overall Impression: This is a fine contemporary work with good Pacific Northwest atmosphere and a careful look at the question of Japanese internment.
Set on a mythical island in the San Juans, San Piedro Island, in c. 1954 with flashbacks. A major theme is racial prejudice toward the Japanese which was at a peak during the war and in the postwar years. The novel also nicely depicts the beautiful wintry landscape and atmospheric isolated setting.
Kabuo Miyamoto is a fisherman who is on trial for the murder of Carl Heine, Jr., also a salmon gillnetter. It is December, 3 months after Heine's death. Judge Llewellyn Fielding presides in the Island County Courthouse in Amity Harbor on San Piedro island. Snow is falling on the cedars outside. Ishmael Chambers runs the local paper and is reporting on the trial. He is a war veteran who lost his left arm in the war. Kabuo's wife Hatsue refuses to talk to Ishmael.
Sheriff Art Moran recounts to prosecutor Alvin Hooks how he and his deputy Abel Martinson discovered the body of Heine tangled in his own net extending from his boat, the Susan Marie. His head had been crushed above the ear.
Nels Gudmundsson, 79 y/o, has been appointed to defend Kabuo. It was foggy... Carl's ship had a missized D6 battery in it and a dead D8 battery....
Ishmael recalls his father Arthur, the local paper Arthur founded, Ishmael's chip on his shoulder from losing his arm--he is unmarried... Other fishers testify... Fishing lore... The coroner Horace Whaley's investigation. The head injury suggests a gun butt (like the "Japs" fought) or a kendo blow. Carl drowned while still alive. He had a cut on his hand. Art recalls how he broke the news to Carl's wife Susan Marie Heine.
The Japanese on the island are described. They cannot legally own land. They were all relocated March 29, 1942 by the War Relocation Authority. We learn of Hatsue's upbringing, her father Hisao Imada (a poor strawberry farmer), her mother Fujiko. She had been first kissed by Ishmael when they were 10. Her family was relocated to Manzanar internment camp in California near Mojave. There she married Kabuo--she recalls their wedding night and the rightness of their sexual relations, and also Ishmael's kiss. 8 days after their marriage, Kabuo left to join the US army to fight in Germany, in order to show his bravery.
Ishmael recalls his early years with Hatsue when they were young teens clamming, how he fell in love with her at 14, their first great kiss, how they had to appear as strangers at school because such a relationship would not be approved of. He spied on her. He meets her in the woods and they enter a hollow cedar tree where they have played as children and she has been coming to think. She is uncertain about the propriety of meeting him, but they kiss again and continue their budding romance.
Carl Heine's mother Etta testifies. She reflects later on how Kabuo's father Zenhichi Miyamoto had arranged in 1934 to "buy" 7 acres of land from her husband Carl Heine Sr. by means of installment payments (what he called a lease, since Japanese could not be citizens and noncitizens could not own land). She resents the Japanese and expresses racist views, but Carl Sr. is tolerant of them and kindly and willing to help them in the purchase. Etta recounts to the court how Miyamoto missed the final payment in 1942 as a result of being relocated... Carl Sr. had wanted them to be treated fairly but she resented them and treated Zenhichi rudely. Kabuo and Carl Jr. have a budding friendship (strained later from the war).
Etta testifies about her husband's death, how in July 1945 she heard from Zenhichi, his anger to learn she had sold his land to Ole Jurgensen, her refusal to honor his old contract with her husband [she had repaid the money paid], Kabuo's anger at her... She believes Kabuo killed her son. She has profited by selling the land to Ole for a higher price that Zenhichi had agreed to... Ole testifies how Kabuo said Etta robbed him of his land. Ole had placed the property on the market in September and Carl Heine Jr. contracted to buy it. Kabuo came by later the same day and was told the land had already been sold (Zenhichi has been dead for a while at this point as had Carl Sr.)
Kabuo reflects on his war experiences, killing a German soldier and being molded into a killer, his resentment of Etta's insulting characterization of his father Zenhichi. Nels' introductory conversations with his client... Kabuo dreams about fishing and his family, Manzanar, his love for Kabuo, his war marriage, his training and excellence at kendo, his samurai ancestry.
Ishmael recalls his secret cedar tree romance that lasted 4 years, her moodiness and unknowability, their pretense of not knowing each other well, her being the Strawberry Princess 1941 and appearing in Arthur Chambers paper. In September, they were seniors. Her tutor tells her she should marry a Japanese boy. She tells Ishmael they cannot go on. War is in the air but not yet declared.
Hatsue recalls Pearl Harbor, the hostilities shown by the islanders to the local Japanese, the growing fear of attack and wartime hysteria, Arthur Chamber's balanced reporting emphasizing the loyalty of the local Japanese. Hatsue had told Ishmael her father was unable to get his money out of the bank. She knows the war is making their love even more impossible. Further island hostilities and suspicions about the Japanese. Ishmael wants to hold on to their love. Japanese movements are restricted on the island, and complaints are made against Arthur for seeming to favor the Japanese in his reporting.
Feb. 1942, Mr. Imada and other Japanese males are arrested for illegal contraband incl. dynamite, and sent to Montana. Hatsue is 18. Fujiko tells Hatsue she is Japanese, that this is her identity, and that she has been tainted by living among the whites (Hakujin). She does not know about the love affair but suspects something. Later Hatsue meets secretly with Ishmael, tells him the love must come to an end, he swears he will always love her. The relocation order comes March 21. The lovers meet one last time in the cedar, he wants her to marry him, he attempts to make love but she knows the relationship is wrong and leaves her feeling unwhole, and forces him to stop.
The Imada family are transported first to Puyallup and then to Manzanar in California. The unpleasant living conditions there.... Hatsue's sister Sumiko intercepts Ishmael's love letter to Hatsue and shows it to her mother. Fujiko is very distressed at Hatsue's deception and insists she have nothing further to do with Ishmael. Fujiko recalls the deception that led to her own marriage with her poor husband... Hatsue apologizes and agrees to write Ishmael to say their love is over. Soon she becomes receptive to Kabuo's overtures.
Ishmael's war experiences as a radioman, ending on Tarawa atoll where he lost his left arm from a bullet... the anger he had toward Japs and toward Hatsue.
The unusually intense snow storm continues... Sheriff Moran testifies about the boat lines etc., how he searched the boat and found a bloody fish gaff on Kabuo's boat which they suspect to be the murder weapon...
Hematologist Whitman testifies about the blood on the gaff matching Carl's type... Other fishermen testify, and Kabuo's skill as a kendo master is described.
Susan Heine, Carl's wife, testifies... Kabuo had come to their home to discuss the land purchase with Carl... Carl's personality and the effects of the war on him. His own dislike of Japs after the war.
Nels recalls his own infirmities as he cross-examines Susan. Kabuo had left believing there was a possibility that Carl would sell to him.
The power is off. Ishmael drives in the snow, encounters the Imadas, who accept his help and driving them as they are stranded in their car. Hatsue tells him the trial is unfair.
Ishmael visits the coast guard light house. He recalls how Hatsue behaved to him after the war. He had blamed the Japs for his lost arm, then regretted saying this word to her. He was like a dying person without her love. She said he can never touch her again, refused even to let him hold her once. He searches the weather records and finds that the night of the fatality, a large freighter had veered from the shipping lanes into the fishing grounds at 1:42 AM, and that no one was aware of this.
Ishmael visits his snowbound mother Helen, recalls her literary interests. She speaks out against the trial. He recalls the treachery and slyness of the Japanese, traits that he was taught as military propaganda. She counsels him on the numbness he feels after returning from the war (unaware of his love for Hatsue). She says he should find a woman, get married and have children. In his old room, he recalls his times with his father, the music, baseball, his death, the respect shown toward his father by the Japanese islanders. He rereads the letter from Hatsue, in which she says she does not love him and that their relationship was wrong. He recalls his subsequent failed love affairs, how he took over the paper after his father's death.
Nels questions Hatsue, Kabuo's plan to repurchase the land and recalls to herself features of their relationship, how Kabuo was not born to fish. She says Kabuo was encouraged by Carl, distinguishes Carl's from Etta's attitudes. She recounts now Carl and Kabuo had concluded an oral agreement to sell the land to Kabuo.
Prosecutor Hook cross-examines Hatsue. He explores why Kabuo had not spoken up to the sheriff about meeting Carl while fishing that night, how suspicious his silence and misleading or false statements seemed. Lead fisherman Josiah Gillanders testifies that it would be impossible for Kabuo to have boarded Carl's boat against Carl's wishes, and about the batteries, how even enemies help each other at sea.
Kabuo recalls how he had not initially told his attorney Nels the entire story, and Nels had suspected he was lying. Nels knew it was because Kabuo was Japanese and assumed he would not be believed. Kabuo recalls the full story of that night of fishing, the fog, other men on the radio that night, how he found Carl without power or lights with burned out batteries, how he lent him a missized battery, how Carl cut his hand trying to get it installed and the blood had come off on the gaff. Carl had spoken about fighting the Japs, had seemed initially a little hostile about the proposed sale, Kabuo had reminded him that he was an American who had also fought in the war, and Carl had finally agreed to the sale.
Kabuo testifies and is examined by prosecutor Hooks. His story is suspicious, and Hook's language seems prejudicial.
Hooks sums up the prosecution case, and Nels follows. Judge instructs the jury.
Ishmael still is sitting on the information that would exonerate Kabuo, uncertain what to do with it [probably also secretly resenting Kabuo for his Japaneseness and his marriage to Hatsue]. Nels speaks admirably about Ishmael's father. Hatsue tells him again the trial was unfair. The jury is undecided because of a single holdout who is not convinced of Kabuo's guilt, and they debate.
Ishmael is at home with his mother. He recalls his father: his favorite books, his career, his kindness toward the Japanese. Ishmael rereads the letter from Hatsue--but his heart is smaller (not large as she says), he has been coasting, his losses have been great. He ventures out into the snow, stops at the hollow cedar, then continues to the Imadas. At last, he shows them the information about the freighter.
She is grateful to him. He asks Hatsue to remember him and to think about him a little, she wants him to marry someone and have children, to live. Next morning, she comes to his house and suggests to him that there should be evidence of the lantern on the mast that Carl would have lashed on when he had lost power and lights. They go in search of the boat. She wonders why he sat on this information for a day. They see Sheriff Moran. The boat Susan Marie is examined and eventually cut lashings are seen on the mast where the lamp had been. They assume the freighter's wake had swamped the boat while Carl was up retrieving the lamp from the mast, knocking him off, hitting his head on the gunwale before he fell into the sea (forensic evidence is found for this), losing his knife and lantern as he fell. Ishmael mentally reconstructs the entire sequence of events the night Carl had died... With this new evidence, the charges are dropped against Kabuo.
Ishmael prepares his story for his paper. He reflects on how Hatsue's heart was unknowable, etc., that "accident ruled every corner of the universe except the chambers of the human heart".