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.”
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.