“It was an eccentric, rainy, wind-beaten sea village, downtrodden and mildewed . . .” (Chpt. 1, p. 5).
The setting of the island of San Piedro is important to the action and themes of the story. It is not a mainstream American city but a small community that lives with the natural elements and the past, overpowering the inhabitants, like the weather.
“He was, his son remembered, morally meticulous, and though Ishmael might strive to emulate this, there was nevertheless this matter of the war—this matter of the arm he'd lost—that made such scrupulosity difficult” (Chapter 4, p. 41). .
Ishmael feels he cannot live up to his father's high moral standards, because after he lost his arm in the war, he is cynical and does not believe in anything. This anticipates his moral test of whether to or not to help the Miyamotos at the trial with the evidence he holds.
In the back of Judge Lew Fielding's courtroom sat twenty-four islanders of Japanese ancestry . . . No law compelled them to take only these rear seats. They had done so instead because San Piedro required it of them without calling it a law” (Chpt. 7, pp. 91,92).
The author introduces the topic of racial prejudice on the island and gives a history of their settling on the island. They have never been full citizens though they have worked the land and fought in World War II against their own ancestral people in Japan. The islanders have not forgotten the war and still treat the Japanese there as the enemy.
“She understood the happiness of a place where the work was clear and there were fields she could enter into with a man she loved purposefully” (Chpt. 7, p. 111).
Hatsue is satisfied on her wedding night with Kabuo, even though they are married at Manzanar, the Japanese internment camp. Both have the same dream of owning a strawberry farm. This love is contrasted to her earlier love for the white boy, Ishmael, that was forbidden and leading her to a dead-end.
“It was how they got the better of you—they acted small, thought big” (Chpt. 9, p. 160).
This is Etta Heine's feeling about the Japanese, like the Miyamoto family, who were humble and respectful but wanted part of the their land.
“What could he say to people on San Piedro to explain the coldness he projected? The world was unreal, a nuisance that prevented him from focusing on his memory of that boy” (Chpt. 11, p. 193).
Kabuo thinks his face looks like a murderer's because he is one. He is haunted by the German boy he shot in the war. All the men who came back from the war have lost their innocence.
“Nels made it a point not to struggle unnecessarily with life's unresolvable dilemmas. He had indeed achieved a kind of wisdom” (Chpt. 21, p. 382).
Nels Gudmundsson is the old and decrepit defense attorney, who however, upholds humanitarian ideals without judging others. His summing up is the moral of the story.
“There seemed no way to prevent them [accidents at sea]. In a thick fog the light could not be seen and boats continued to come aground” (Chpt. 23, p. 416).
The lighthouse in the harbor has not prevented boat accidents, and this is an introduction to what happened to Carl Heine, who had an accident and was not murdered. There is a strong element of fatalism in the novel. Carl, for instance, survived horrors of the war and then drowned at home. There seems to have been no way to avoid this.
“'The facts are all that matter,' said Ishmael,'and the facts weigh in against him'” (Chpt. 24, p. 439).
Ishmael lies to his mother that Kabuo seems to be guilty when he knows he is not. He carries the proof in his pocket of his innocence and knows it was an accident.
“He has returned to find himself the victim of prejudice—make no mistake about it, this trial is about prejudice—in the country he fought to defend” (Chpt. 29, p. 531).
Nels sums up for the defense, claiming Kabuo is the victim, not Carl Heine. Kabuo had done everything he could do to prove he was loyal to the United States, including destroying his own life in the war.
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