Summary of Chapter One
The story opens in 1954 at a murder trial on the island of San Piedro in Puget Sound. The accused man, Kabuo Miyamoto, is a Japanese fisherman, sitting proudly upright showing no expression on his face. The jury had all known the deceased, Carl Heine, a salmon gill-netter, married with three children. It is a small and rundown courtroom presided over by Judge Llewellyn Fielding. As the trial starts, a December snowstorm begins that continues for the three days of the trial. Kabuo finds the snow beautiful because he has been in a dark cell without windows for three months.
San Piedro is an island of five thousand people in the Puget Sound, named by Spanish explorers. Many settlers came in the nineteenth century from Japan, Canada, the United States, and European countries. There are also Native Americans and Filipinos living there, as we hear later. Amity Harbor is the only town on the island, battered by winds, rain, and the sea, existing on steep hills of cedar trees. There are town stores to supply the needs of the many primarily German and Scandinavian fishermen, although there is also a strong Japanese community. Reporters have come from Seattle for the trial. The local reporter, Ishmael Chambers, is also there. He is a war veteran with only one arm, and his left sleeve is pinned up. He tries to speak to Kabuo's Japanese wife, Hatsue, in the lobby of the courthouse, but she tells him to go away.
Commentary on Chapter One
Kabuo's appearance can be read two ways by the jury of white islanders. He has the contemplative and calm expression cultured by the religion of Buddhism and his status as a kendo master. On the other hand, he is very strong and can look ruthless and merciless to whites, as did Japanese soldiers in World War II. The jury is made up of islanders—fisherman, merchants, and housewives—without much worldly knowledge.
San Piedro is a fictitious island based on Bainbridge Island in Puget Sound, west of Seattle, Guterson's own community. The island, shown in the 1940s and 1950s, is supported mostly by salmon fishing and the growing of strawberries. It also has farms and sawmills. In the summer, there is tourist traffic from Seattle. The author describes the “verdant beauty” of the island, with its cedar trees on steep hills, making the place poetical in appearance (p. 5).
We meet three main characters, Kabuo Miyamoto, the accused, Kabuo's wife, Hatsue, and Ishmael Chambers, the local reporter. Ishmael does not want to be jaded like the reporters from outside, for this is his community. He knows and respects Kabuo and Hatsue, though Hatsue rejects his offer of sympathy.
Summary of Chapter Two
The sheriff, Art Moran, is the first witness called by the prosecutor, Alvin Hooks. Art Moran and his deputy, Abel Martinson, were the first ones to find the body of Carl Heine, drowned and tangled in his fishing net on September 16. Carl's fishing boat, the Susan Marie, had been reported drifting in the bay at 9:30 a.m. with all its lights on.
The narrative moves from the present courtroom trial to the flashback memories of the witnesses, in this case, Sheriff Moran, as he finds the body. His deputy Abel notices Carl is not on the boat and concludes he must have gone over the side. They find fish in the hold. They examine the cabin with a tipped coffee cup on the floor.
Carl Heine came from the old Bavarian stock on the island who owned strawberry fields. The Heines were quiet and worked hard. Carl was big, over two hundred pounds, and part of the Lutheran community. He kept to himself after the war where he served as a gunner during the invasion of Okinawa. He is known as a good man, who looks after his family and widowed mother, Etta.
Art, the older sheriff, tells his young deputy, Abel, they need to turn on the boat and haul in the net. He knows Abel does not understand the significance of this. When they haul in the net, they find Carl's body, dangling in the net beside the live salmon. Abel vomits. Carl's corpse has a wound on the head. They assume he hit his head going over.
Commentary on Chapter Two
The courtroom scene, narrated by an omniscient narrator, provides the continuity of the story which stretches over the three days of the trial. However, when each witness goes back in time to examine the events, this provides a different, limited third-person point of view. The sheriff is described as a reluctant law officer. He represents the knowledge of the worst about life, having to deal with crime and death. He is thin and nervous, chewing Juicy Fruit gum when he is stressed. His deputy represents a young man just coming into contact with death and the knowledge of suffering. Art realizes this is an important initiation for Abel and tries to help him through it. They see that Carl drowned, but he also has a bash on the head, and his boat was left adrift with the lights on, which are suspicious facts. Carl Heine's background is important, since his parents played an important part in creating the drama for the next generation on the island.