Snow Falling on Cedars begins in the winter of 1954 with the trial of Kabuo Miyamoto, a Japanese-American man who faces the charge of murder in the death of Carl Heine. (Carl, a local fisherman, leaves behind a wife and three children.) The jury wears an impassive expression as Judge Llewellyn Fielding presides. The trial occurs in the Island Country Courthouse located on San Piedro Island in the Puget Sound, and the narrative reveals Kabuo's unreadable face as he contemplates the snow falling over the cedars. He thinks of the scene in the window as "infinitely beautiful" (2), largely because the basement cell in which he has been imprisoned is windowless.
The courthouse is located in Amity Harbor, the only town on the island. Out-of-town newspapermen flock into the courtroom to cover the trial, and Ishmael Chambers, a local reporter, age 31, observes their indolent, jaded behavior. He prefers not to be like them. Ishmael, a war veteran with only one arm, remembers how he and Kabuo had gone to high school together. Narrative suspense builds when Ishmael encounters Hatsue, Kabuo's wife. When she cries for him to go away, the suggestion of an intimacy between them is unmistakable.
The prosecutor, Alvin Hooks, calls the first witness. Art Moran, the county sheriff, testifies about the morning of September 16, when he and his deputy Abel Martinson saw a fishing boat floating adrift on its side. Together, Art and Abel reached the boat and discovered Carl's body drowned in his fishing net. As they dragged the body out of the net, Abel discovered a wound to the left side of the head: part of the skull had been crushed.
Nels Gudmundsson, the defense attorney, age 79 and blind in his left eye, cross-examines the sheriff and asks him to describe the weather on the night of Carl's death. Art responds that it was foggy. Nels then leads him to describe the batteries found on the boat: a D-6 down in the well, a dead D-8 spare, and another D-6 that had been jammed in to fit. On Kabuo's boat, Art later found two D-6s, but no spare.
Concluding his cross-examination, Nels parts with a final question regarding the dead man's weight. Art states that Carl had been 235 pounds, stiff, and very heavy. Nels takes the opportunity to create an uncertainty about whether or not Art and Abel might not have, while freeing the body, done some accidental injury to the head. Conceding, Art says that it is possible but unlikely.
This carefully constructed narrative opens with a trial. That the accused is a Japanese-American while the dead man is a white fisherman suggests a tension in the island community. Kabuo, the accused, leaving a strong impression on his observers, causes the reader to wonder: is he really guilty? Nothing in the description of Kabuo offers a definitive answer, and the author intends the facts in the early part of the narrative to be readable in two ways: as guilt or as innocence.
Kabuo, in watching the snow fall, meditates upon what we know to be the title of the book. "Snow falling on cedars" gestures toward a traditional Japanese poetic aesthetic, which distills natural images to provoke an emotional experience. In the case of "snow falling on cedars," the emotional response, as green is made white in the midst of the winter season, is serene and sorrowful. The action of the snow echoes a covering over, a burial, erasure, or purification, further indicating the variety of feelings that are perhaps within Kabuo himself, as well as the island community gathered to meditate upon a dead man. As the narrative progresses, the image evokes the end of innocence and youth.
The novel presents the island community as a closed microcosm in which the relationships have very specific histories. Evoking the grander picture of wartime and postwar American society, the narrative balances the world beyond the island with the island itself, along with the ways that the outer world impacts the lives on the island.
Ishmael's character slowly unfolds and then immediately draws itself into the web of the trial. His intimacy with Hatsue, Kabuo's wife, leaves the reader with the questions of how they have come to know each other so well and how their intimacy might impact the trial.
As Art describes the mysterious wound on the side of Carl's head, the author reveals the kind of man Carl had been while alive: grave, quiet, and the kind of man who named his boat after his wife, hinting at a privately passionate marriage. By contrast, Kabuo had named his boat The Islander, which offers a blank, almost abstract image of an individual without race, history, or intimacy. "The Islander," rather, is a person defined, in essence, by the place in which he has lived, and this epithet can apply to practically every character in the novel. The names of the two boats therefore suggest two different ways of constructing a personal identity. Naming a boat for a loved one represents tying one's fate to another's through love, while naming a boat in terms of a place represents the desire to construct one's identity through the place in which one has been born or in which one has chosen to live one's life.