Snow Falling on Cedars | Study Guide

David Guterson

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Snow Falling on Cedars | Chapter 4 | Summary



This chapter focuses on Ishmael Chambers. He grew up on the island and went to school with Carl Heine, Kabuo Miyamoto, and Hatsue Miyamoto. His father, Arthur Chambers, was a World War I veteran who founded the local newspaper. Arthur was very deliberate about what he wrote in the paper. Arthur is dead now, but Ishmael's mother, Helen Chambers, says he is very like his father. Ishmael is a veteran of World War II, an amputee who lost his arm in battle. After the war Ishmael studied literature in college, including books such as Moby Dick, and then returned to the island to run his father's paper.

Ishmael remembers when he first heard of Carl's death. He looked for Art Moran and found him on the dock, talking to fishermen. The fishermen don't trust Ishmael because he works "with words" rather than his hands, but they respect his war service. They also seem to dislike Kabuo because he is Japanese. Ishmael can tell that Art thinks Carl's death is suspicious. Art insists that Ishmael not publish these suspicions, and Ishmael agrees to call the death an "accident"—for now.


Ishmael Chambers's name is symbolic. In Jewish teaching, Ishmael was Abraham's first son, conceived not with Abraham's wife but with her servant. Abraham's wife, Sarah, encouraged the pregnancy because she could not conceive. Later, Sarah had a son Isaac and she worried Ishmael would hurt him. Ishmael and his mother were abandoned in the desert and almost died of thirst, but God created a miraculous spring of water to save them. In a literary sense, the name "Ishmael" is often used to indicate an outcast, one who has been rejected by society. The narrator of Moby Dick is named Ishmael for this reason, as Ishmael Chambers discovers during his studies.

Ishmael is an outsider in Amity Harbor because of his amputated arm and his profession. His father, Arthur Chambers, was also an outsider. Arthur seems to have relished the opportunity to stand alone on important issues, while Ishmael avoids attention.

Ishmael remembers a fascinating moment from his high school years with Carl Heine. Carl is described as a large young man with a "thick German neck" and a "square chin," but comments to Ishmael about geese flying by; Carl had a sensitivity to beauty or nature that one would not expect from a big, thick young man. Note that Carl was of German ancestry: Germans were one of the adversaries in World War II, just as the Japanese were. Heine is a common German name; a variation of it, heinie, was also a slang term for German adversaries during both World Wars. No one held this against Carl, but when Kabuo Miyamoto came up, the fishermen respond with "suckers all look alike," calling them "Japs," the derogatory term used to refer to the Japanese during World War II.

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