Snow Falling on Cedars is a novel strongly committed to engaging with the ideals of justice, law, love, and morality. Structured around the trial of an American citizen of Japanese ancestry and set in an island community in the Puget Sound, the novel explores the histories of the characters involved in the trial. In doing so, it examines the prejudice and suspicions that thrived against the Japanese community during World War II. The forced relocation of the Japanese becomes a severe political wound in the landscape of American civil liberties.
In presenting this wound, the novel dramatizes its effects on individuals, particularly those of the Miyamoto family's land holdings, which are sold off in their absence following the death of a man they had counted on. Additionally, the relocation of the family forces a break in the relationship of the Japanese-American girl Hatsue and the white American boy Ishmael Chambers, who had maintained a secret love affair for years. The political wound thus is intensified across many spheres of life. On the one hand, it shows, in Hatsue, a need to prize the aspect of her personal identity that is being condemned, rather than transcending it with love for a white man. On the other, it shows, in Kabuo, how he proves himself in war, through his fighting for his country in a show of loyalty. When Kabuo returns, he seeks redress for the injustice done to his family by attempting to buy back the original land holdings. The strawberry farm that Kabuo Miyamoto and Hatsue dream of nurturing together symbolizes the American dream.
As the trial progresses and the odds weigh against Kabuo (in spite of his innocence), attention turns to Ishmael, a boy who had been deeply in love with Hatsue and who now wears a broken heart. The loss of his arm signifies a loss of spirit but--since the conclusion of the story rests in his hands, with the key evidence he has uncovered--his moment is a moral one. The choice is his. This choice is not unlike that of Carl Heine, the deceased, when he made his agreement with Kabuo on the seas on the foggy night revisited in the trial. Although the past is proven to be past--and one lives with it--there may still be actions and moral choices to make. Ishmael's choice shows that when an action that can help others and the community as a whole--beyond the personal benefit of resolving a tension buried deep inside one's own heart--the clear answer is to choose the action. History and this novel both teach us to do what is beneficial and to prevent harm.
Snow Falling on Cedars has been compared with Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird in that both novels are deeply committed to exploring issues related to the American system of justice, as well as race, love, and community.