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Snow Falling on Cedars

David Guterson

Chapters 30–32

Chapters 25–29

Important Quotations Explained

Summary : Chapter 30

The jurors leave the courtroom to deliberate. Some people file out of the courtroom, while others remain, since the power outage on the island leaves them with nowhere else to stay that is warm and dry. Nels remarks to Ishmael how much he liked and respected his father, Arthur Chambers. Ishmael sees Hatsue on his way out the door, and she again asks Ishmael to defend Kabuo in the San Piedro Review, calling it “[his] father’s newspaper.” Ishmael points out that he runs the newspaper now and that if Hatsue wishes to talk to him about what he prints in it, she will find him at his mother’s house.

Meanwhile, the jurors deliberate. They are unable to reach a verdict that evening because one of the jurors, a local boat builder named Alexander Van Ness, doubts that Kabuo committed premeditated murder. All the other jurors are frustrated, since they strongly believe Kabuo is guilty but are unable to persuade Van Ness to change his mind. With the lone juror preventing the delivery of a verdict, the jury adjourns for the evening.

Summary: Chapter 31

Ishmael sits in his father’s study that evening, surrounded by the books his father once read. He remembers his father telling him that an enemy on the island was an enemy for life, which makes the islanders careful toward others’ feelings but also makes them somewhat brooding and reserved. Ishmael also remembers his father taking him to the Strawberry Festival as a boy. Arthur Chambers told Mr. Fukida, an old Japanese farmer, that he had high hopes for his son. Mr. Fukida replied, “We wish good fortune for him, too. We believe his heart is strong, like his father’s. Your son is very good boy.”

Ishmael leaves his father’s study and goes to his old room, where he rereads the rejection letter from Hatsue. She wrote that because Ishmael had a big heart, she was certain he would do “great things.” Ishmael realizes that he has disappointed Hatsue and has failed to live up to her expectations. He gets up, leaves his mother’s house, and walks to the cedar tree. Ishmael then decides to go to the Imadas’ home and tell them about the records he found at the lighthouse that prove Kabuo’s innocence.

Summary: Chapter 32

At the Imadas’ home, Ishmael shows Hatsue the evidence he has found. Hatsue is grateful and kisses Ishmael on the cheek just before he leaves. She tells him she will always remember his goodness and urges him to leave the past behind and move on with his life.

Early the next morning, Ishmael wakes to his mother telling him that Hatsue is downstairs. Hatsue recalls that Kabuo testified that Carl had tied a lantern to his mast because he had no electricity to power the lights on his boat. Hatsue reasons that if the lantern is still tied to the mast, it proves that Carl’s batteries had gone dead. Hatsue and Ishmael take the lighthouse radio transcript to Art Moran, who agrees to look at Carl’s boat again.

Art, Abel, and Ishmael visit the boat, which has been kept in sealed storage. Art makes Hatsue stay behind. The men find no lantern on the mast, but do find some cotton twine on the mast that looks as if has been cut with a knife. A smudge of rust on the twine suggests than it had held the lantern’s handle. There is also some blood on the mast, and Ishmael reminds Art about the cut that was found on Carl’s hand. Ishmael suggests that Carl might have climbed up the mast to cut the lantern loose after Kabuo left; indeed, the coroner found cotton twine and an empty knife sheath in Carl’s pockets. Ishmael speculates that the wake of the passing freighter knocked Carl off the mast while he was cutting the lantern loose, which would explain the missing knife and lantern. Finally, the men notice a dent in the boat and find three human hairs lodged there.

After examining the new evidence, Judge Fielding dismisses the charges against Kabuo and sets him free. Kabuo kisses Hatsue as he leaves the courtroom, and Ishmael photographs this kiss for the paper. The narrative flashes back to the moment of Carl’s death, as reconstructed by Ishmael. We learn that Carl was in the midst of tying a lantern to the mast when a massive wave from the Corona crashed into his boat, throwing him from the mast. As he fell, his head struck the boat, knocking him unconscious. He fell into the water and drowned.

The novel concludes with a brief scene back in the present. Ishmael is leaning over his typewriter, writing the story of Carl’s final moments. He realizes that although the truth of Carl’s death has been revealed, the inner truth of Kabuo’s heart—or that of Carl’s, Hatsue’s, or anyone else’s, for that matter—will never be known. Ishmael at last understands that “accident rule[s] every corner of the universe except the chambers of the human heart.”

Analysis: Chapters 30–32

We see a remarkable transformation in Ishmael in these final chapters, as he is confronted with the choice between doing what is right by saving Kabuo and enacting his revenge against Hatsue by allowing her husband’s imprisonment. Damaged and sullen, Ishmael must stop being a mere observer of life and become an active participant. Reaching the decision to come forward with the evidence finally enables him to move on from the past, recovering from the twin wounds of romantic rejection and war. Ishmael also finally abandons his naïveté and idealism, accepting that the world is an imperfect place ruled as much by accident, chance, and fate as it is by choice.

Though Ishmael’s decision to step forward and change Kabuo’s fate demonstrates that he does have the power of free will, there are other aspects of his life that he cannot change—the war and his rejected love for Hatsue. However, Ishmael finally comes to accept these circumstances as well. His acceptance occurs symbolically when he drives past the harbor and notices boats capsized by the storm. Guterson writes, “It occurred to Ishmael for the first time in his life that such destruction could be beautiful.” Ishmael realizes that destruction is part of life—and life, though imperfect, is worth living.

Ishmael’s decision to act is a heroic one, since it demonstrates his newfound moral superiority compared to the silence and prejudice of the other islanders. Ishmael’s decision also gains symbolic significance because it occurs while he is in his father’s study. Sitting in Arthur Chambers’s chair, Ishmael finds the strength to fill the place left vacant by his father’s death. Ishmael chooses to live up to Mr. Fukida’s belief that his “heart is strong” and to fulfill Hatsue’s prophecy that he will “do great things.” Ironically, this great thing—saving Kabuo—establishes the foundation for a new, healed relationship between Ishmael and Hatsue.

One other man, Alexander Van Ness, also affects Kabuo’s fate. Van Ness is a typical San Piedro islander: a local boat builder who works with his hands, not a lawyer or newspaper editor who works with words. Yet the stubborn Van Ness refuses to condemn Kabuo without proof. Van Ness demonstrates that the mainstream white community of San Piedro does have a conscience after all and that one individual’s morality can prevent the community from committing yet another injustice.

The new evidence Ishmael presents sends a shockwave through the community, forcing the islanders to accept that Kabuo does not in fact fulfill their worst stereotypes of the Japanese, and that their ideal citizen, Carl Heine, merely died in an accident. This revelation leaves the islanders unable to justify or rationalize Carl’s death. There is no discernable reason for Carl’s death—it is the result of pure chance, just like the storm that rages over San Piedro during the trial. In the final lines of the novel, Guterson writes that chance rules the universe and suggests that acceptance of this fact is what allows individuals and communities to survive and prosper. Guterson implies that individuals have a choice over their actions. Just as Van Ness stands up for his beliefs, Ishmael puts his selfishness behind him and acts responsibly, and Kabuo and Carl resolve their differences. A community, an island, even an entire world, though buffeted by the storms of chance, can still perform individual acts of love and justice. Though storms that cloak silent cedars in snow are inevitable, the storms of envy, hatred, prejudice, and war are not.

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