Analysis: Chapters 15–18

The internment at Manzanar is paradoxical. While it dehumanizes and confines the Japanese community as a whole, it liberates many of them as individuals, especially the children. As family structures break down under the stress of life in the camp, the children gain a new level of freedom. The Japanese people also feel liberated from the outside world’s encroachment on their culture. Hatsue terminates her relationship with Ishmael and brings herself closer to her family. She feels all along that the relationship is wrong and is glad to be completely honest with her mother at last. Meanwhile, meeting Kabuo brings Hatsue closer to her own community. She begins to feel less confusion about her culture and beliefs, identifying more strongly with her Japanese heritage while moving away from her idealism toward fatalism. However, Hatsue does not give in to fatalism entirely; she objects to Kabuo’s enlistment in the army and strongly desires that he stay in the camp. Her wish is as idealistic—and perhaps as naïve—as Ishmael’s former belief that his love for Hatsue would overcome all obstacles.

Ishmael and Hatsue move in opposite directions after they are separated from each other. Both initially use the cedar tree as an escape from the outside world, a place where they feel safe to love each other and dream about their future. Yet the tree ceases to be a sanctuary for Hatsue and in fact becomes a sort of prison for her as her guilt about deceiving her parents increases. Ironically, when Hatsue enters Manzanar, a real prison, she feels a newfound freedom and security. Ishmael, however, leaves the sanctuary of the cedar tree for the harshest of all storms: the war.

The death and destruction of the war imprison Ishmael emotionally and shatter him physically. He wakes to find his arm amputated and able to think only of Hatsue’s rejection of him. Like Hatsue, Ishmael gives up his idealism and his dream of breaking down the barriers between the Japanese and white cultures. Unlike Hatsue, however, he fails to move on to a new identity and is unable to find a new home for himself in his own culture. Unlike Kabuo, who comes to accept that his war experience makes him guilty of murder, Ishmael finds no new belief system or notion of justice. Left with nothing, he lapses into remorse and hatred. As Chapter 16 closes with the image of the wounded Ishmael cursing Hatsue, we see how Ishmael’s loss of innocence has left him unable to distinguish between the cruelty of love, which is individual, and the cruelty of war, which is collective.

Guterson narrates Ishmael’s battle experience in a straightforward, detached manner, highlighting the absurd cruelty of war. The members of Ishmael’s company die so quickly that they do not even have the chance to figure out what is going on around them, let alone be heroes. Military discipline breaks down as the soldiers die in massive numbers. Guterson’s descriptions of the sacrifices made by Ishmael and his fellow soldiers suggest the futility of the war as well as the individual’s inability to control his fate in such a war.

The chapters that follow Ishmael’s battle flashback return us to a world of facts and testimonies. The San Piedro community’s attempt to assign guilt and innocence inside the courtroom contrasts sharply with the storm raging outside. As the blizzard sends cars careening into ditches, the islanders are left powerless, able only to hope for their safety. Guterson notes that the island’s longest-established residents are highly fatalistic: “[T]hose who had lived on the island a long time knew that the storm’s outcome was beyond their control.” Out in the storm, the islanders do what little they can to prepare, but they know that they will have to accept whatever the storm brings. Similarly, inside the courtroom, Kabuo has to accept his own fate. Within the confines of the courthouse, however, it is not the forces of nature but a group of people that will deliberate over his fate—just as it is not nature but people who build walls between cultures and wage war. Guterson repeatedly stresses this distinction, challenging us to decide where to draw the line between fate and free will.