The novel opens in a courtroom on San Piedro Island in the Puget Sound region of Washington. The date is December 6, 1954. Kabuo Miyamoto, a Japanese-American fisherman, is on trial for the murder of another local fisherman, a white man named Carl Heine. Kabuo sits in the courtroom, proud and silent, while the court prepares to hear the case. A snowstorm is brewing outside. Inside, jurors, lawyers, reporters, and the public gather for the trial. Among the reporters is Ishmael Chambers, the editor of the local paper and a veteran of World War II. Kabuo’s wife, Hatsue, is also in the courtroom. Ishmael had tried to speak with Hatsue before the trial. But Hatsue, for reasons not yet clear, told Ishmael to go away.
In the courtroom, Alvin Hooks, the prosecuting attorney, questions the local sheriff, Art Moran. Art testifies that Carl Heine’s boat, the Susan Marie, was found adrift on the morning of September 16, 1954. Upon boarding the boat and investigating the scene, Art and his deputy, Abel Martinson, found Carl’s body trapped in the boat’s fishing net underwater. When Art and Abel pulled Carl—a well-built, quiet, and respected fisherman—up into the boat, they discovered an odd wound on his head. The wound later led Art to suspect foul play.
During cross-examination, Kabuo’s defense attorney, Nels Gudmundsson, questions the sheriff about the contents of Carl’s boat. Of particular interest is a dead engine battery that was found on the boat. The type of battery is different from the type that Carl normally used to power his boat but it matches the type of battery that Kabuo used on his boat. The elderly Nels, whose failing health has left him frail, raises the possibility that Carl may have fallen out of his boat by accident while he was changing the engine battery.
The first chapters of Snow Falling on Cedars establish three aspects of the novel’s setting. First, Guterson introduces the island itself. The residents of San Piedro live in close proximity to one another and are isolated physically from the rest of the world. Likewise, their antiquated lifestyle of fishing and strawberry-farming separates them culturally from people in Seattle and other nearby urban areas. Together, this physical and cultural isolation heightens the fragility of the community. It also encourages us to think of San Piedro as a microcosm, a smaller world that symbolizes the whole world.
Second, the first few chapters introduce the courtroom. The courtroom is not only the physical setting but also a metaphor for Guterson’s overall intent in the novel. While the citizens of San Piedro put Kabuo on trial, Guterson puts the community of San Piedro, and history itself, on trial. Just as a trial relies on testimonies to establish a story, leaving a jury to decide guilt or innocence based on these testimonies, the novel presents testimonies of its characters’ beliefs and values, leaving us to decide who is guilty and who is innocent.
Third, Guterson describes the snowstorm brewing outside the courthouse, a storm that lasts through the entire trial. This storm forces the islanders to cooperate, even as they put one of their own members on trial. More important, it represents a force of nature that humans are powerless to control. Yet while a storm rages outside, inside the courtroom people try carefully to determine the guilt or innocence of a man. This tension between the aspects of life that individuals and communities cannot control and those they can and should control persists throughout the novel.