Snow Falling on Cedars | Study Guide

David Guterson

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Snow Falling on Cedars | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram


In 1955 Kabuo Miyamoto is on trial for murder. Kabuo is Japanese American, a lifelong resident of San Piedro Island in Puget Sound. Many people attend the trial, including his wife, Hatsue, and Ishmael Chambers, a local journalist who was Hatsue's first boyfriend. Kabuo, Ishmael, and Kabuo's supposed victim, Carl Heine, are all veterans of World War II. Ishmael lost his arm in the war; the other two were physically undamaged, though all of them suffer psychologically from what they experienced.

Carl's body was found tangled in his fishing net in the water; he had a serious head injury as well. Over the course of the trial, testimony reveals Kabuo was fishing near Carl that night and was on Carl's boat for a time. Testimony also shows Kabuo may have had reason to resent Carl.

Flashbacks reveal events of years earlier and are interspersed with the present day (i.e., 1955).

Years before World War II, Carl Heine Sr. and his wife ,Etta, owned a strawberry farm. In 1934 Carl Sr. enters into an agreement with Zenhichi Miyamoto, Kabuo's father, when Kabuo is still young. The Miyamotos will pay the Heines for seven acres of the farm, which they will own after paying for several years. Etta Heine does not approve of the deal, but Carl Sr. goes ahead with it.

Carl Jr. and Kabuo are childhood friends who go to school and fish together, along with Hatsue and Ishmael. In 1938 Ishmael and Hatsue become childhood sweethearts, whose relationship deepens as they grow older. Their relationship is secret because Hatsue is Japanese American and Ishmael is white. Hatsue becomes more and more troubled by their relationship and the need to conceal it, but Ishmael loves her too much to care.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 brings the U.S. into World War II when Ishmael, Hatsue, Carl, and Kabuo are in high school. Discrimination against Japanese Americans grows steadily worse, and all the island's Japanese residents are sent to internment camps. Ishmael is heartbroken when Hatsue is sent away; she is more troubled by the discrimination her family faces. When Ishmael writes to her at the internment camp, Hatsue's mother learns of their relationship. She wants it to end, but Hatsue tells her it is already over. Hatsue writes Ishmael a letter breaking up with him. Ishmael is devastated. He goes overseas to fight the Japanese army and his anger at Hatsue gets mixed up with his anger at the soldiers he is fighting. In the internment camp, Hatsue and Kabuo get to know each other better and get married. Shortly after their wedding, Kabuo volunteers to join the American army.

The Miyamoto family misses their last payment on their land because they are interned. Carl Sr. has died and Etta, who never liked the deal anyway, sells the land to someone else and gives the Miyamotos their money back.

All three young men—Carl, Kabuo, and Ishmael—survive the war and return to the island in 1945. Carl and Kabuo become fishermen, while Ishmael takes over his father's newspaper. Kabuo tries to get his family's land back but fails. He is furious over the injustice of it.

Earlier in 1955, the old Heine family farmland comes up for sale again and Carl wants to buy it. Kabuo approaches Carl to ask if he can buy his family's portion again, and Carl doesn't give him a direct answer. When Carl is found dead, Kabuo is blamed and arrested.

Throughout the trial, readers hear from island residents a clear racist attitude toward Kabuo and his family. Will the jury convict him based on these attitudes? Testimony in the trial reveals evidence that looks bad for Kabuo. It is revealed a pole on Kabuo's boat has Carl's blood on it and Kabuo is a known expert in kendo, a Japanese martial art that uses swords and wooden sticks. Kabuo looks guilty, but Ishmael Chambers finds evidence that could clear him. Ishmael is still angry at Hatsue and unable to move on from the dual crises of losing her and the anger he felt toward the Japanese in the war, so he keeps the evidence hidden. Ishmael tries to interact with Hatsue, who pretends he is not there until she can bear it no longer. When she does speak to him, she challenges Ishmael to write an editorial in his local newspaper about how discriminatory the trial is. Ishmael's mother also sees the trial as discriminatory, and she encourages Ishmael to try to feel outrage and support Kabuo and Hatsue or drop his obsession over Hatsue once and for all.

Kabuo's case goes to the jury; it seems all the jurors except one are ready to convict him. Ishmael finally makes peace with his demons and brings the evidence to Hatsue. The evidence leads the sheriff to do more investigating, and Carl's death turns out to be an accident. Kabuo is freed and reunited with his family, and Ishmael is finally at peace in his heart.

Snow Falling on Cedars Plot Diagram

123456789101112131415ClimaxResolutionIntroductionRising ActionFalling Action


1 Ishmael attends Kabuo's trial and sees Hatsue.

Rising Action

2 Ishmael cannot forget Hatsue.

3 Evidence reveals Kabuo might have killed Carl.

4 In a flashback, Ishmael and Hatsue begin a secret romance.

5 In a flashback, interned Japanese families lose everything.

6 In a flashback, Hatsue breaks up with Ishmael.

7 In a flashback, Kabuo tries to regain his family's land.

8 Ishmael finds evidence to clear Kabuo but doesn't share it.

9 Kabuo tells the truth to the court about what happened.

10 A single juror prevents the jury from convicting Kabuo.


11 Ishmael accepts the loss of Hatsue and shows her evidence.

Falling Action

12 Ishmael and Hatsue resolve their history.

13 Ishmael, Art, and Abel prove Carl's death was accidental.

14 Kabuo is freed and reunited with Hatsue.


15 Ishmael starts to write the story for the newspaper.

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