Guterson uses the first three chapters to provide the necessary exposition for the legal thriller, the interracial love story, the exploration of racism, and the social commentary. The three-day trial proceeds in a straightforward fashion, but the rest of the narrative is a combination of flashback and memories. Events are told through different points of view, with testimony seamlessly becoming memory, with people and words triggering other memories and feelings. When Ishmael Chambers is introduced, it's not readily apparent that he's the main character of Snow Falling on Cedars.
The narrative opens in a courtroom; Kabuo Miyamoto, an American of Japanese descent, is on trial for killing Carl Heine, Jr. The trial takes place on the small island of San Piedro, north of the Puget Sound in the Pacific Northwest. Alvin Hooks is prosecuting, and Nels Gudmundsson is defending Kabuo. Moments before the trial starts, the owner, editor, and reporter for the local newspaper, Ishmael Chambers, shares a stilted conversation — and obviously a past — with Kabuo's wife, Hatsue: "'Go away,' she'd said in a whisper, and then for a moment she'd glared. He remained uncertain afterward what her eyes had meant — punishment, sorrow, pain."
Sheriff Art Moran, the first witness for the prosecution, provides his account of the events that transpired. Art heard a radio report that Carl Heine's boat, the Susan Marie, was drifting in the bay. Art and his deputy, Abel Martinson, investigated and found the Susan Marie empty; the fishing nets were not. They lifted the nets aboard the boat and proceeded to examine Carl Heine's corpse. Nels Gudmundsson, Miyamoto's lawyer, conducts the cross-examination, emphasizing the fact that it was possible that the wound on Carl's head may have been inflicted after his death: "'is it possible, Sheriff Moran, that the deceased banged his head sometime after his death? Is that possible?'"
The action and development of the first three chapters provide the impression that Snow Falling on Cedars is solely going to be a courtroom drama; however, as the opening paragraphs depict Kabuo Miyamoto sitting in the courtroom while snow falls on the cedars surrounding the small island courthouse, Guterson introduces the important weather motif and symbolism. Snow falls throughout the trial, covering, freezing, beautifying, and cleansing, while at the same time isolating the inhabitants of the island.
Guterson mentions all the important themes, characters, and information used in the multiple narratives, yet he draws no attention to the most important information. His eye for detail is precise, providing a clear sense of time and place — the setting — which plays a pivotal part in one of the novel's major themes. The history between Ishmael and Hatsue is mentioned at the very end of Chapter 1, but instead of using this as a transition into their story and their history, Chapter 2 opens with the first witness, Art Moran and his testimony. Readers relive the scene as Moran remembers it, and only during the cross-examination in Chapter 3 are they reminded that the story is being told by a character on the witness stand and not an omniscient narrator.
This shifting point of view is a technique that Guterson uses effectively throughout his novel to reveal the shaping of the information. Of course, the information available to the reader isn't available to all the characters. Guterson is careful not to reveal the direction of the narrative; instead, he is content to provide tidbits of information that prove to be quite significant — for example, that Carl Heine's grandfather "had established thirty acres of strawberry fields on prime growing land in Center Valley" — as though they were just part of the detailed description.
By the end of the third chapter, it's obvious that the heavy fog, the spare batteries, and the wound on Carl's skull are pivotal pieces of information for the trial, but no mention of motive exists. Neither is there any hint of racism — one of the novel's most important themes. Although the information has yet to be revealed, most of San Piedro's Caucasian population don't consider their neighbors to be Japanese-Americans; they consider them to be Japanese. The memories of World War II are kept alive by all the Americans — Japanese and White — on San Piedro.
salmon gill-netters fishermen who used flat nets that suspended vertically in the water to capture fish, especially salmon. The head of the fish passed through the mesh opening, but the fish entangled itself as it attempted to withdraw.
crabber a person who fishes for crabs.
halibut schooner a boat rigged with two or more masts used for fishing halibut.
casements windows with hinges that allow them to open from the inside.
Northwest Passage the water route along the northern coast of North America leading from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean.
Nootka a member of a Wakashan (Native American) people of Vancouver Island and the surrounding region; large timber trees grown on the Pacific Coast of the United States are named after them.
purse seiners large nets designed to be set by two boats around a school of fish and so arranged that after the ends have been brought together the bottom can be closed.
chandlery a retail shop dealing in provisions, supplies, or equipment of a specified kind; in this context, probably a boating supply shop.
bracken clump of ferns with stem and leaves up to four feet high and three feet wide.
miasma a heavy, vaporous atmosphere.
the net was all run out The fishing nets are set in the water, as though in use, although apparently not being used.
launch a small motorboat.
coast guard military coastal patrol set up to enforce navigation laws and to protect life and property at sea.
with her net set Here, "her" refers to the ship Susan Marie; the fishing nets were in the water, though apparently not being used; when fishing nets are "all run out," they are said to be "set."
set the fenders out Rubber cushions — "fenders" — are placed between the boat and the dock (or another boat) to protect the boat's body.
deck cleats pieces of metal attached to the boat dock to which rope line can be secured.
guys and stays control ropes.
flange a metal rim for attachment to another object.
picking lights lights used to illuminate the deck of the ship.
jacklight a light used for fishing at night to attract fish.
stern-picker a standard net fishing boat.
stern-side entry an entrance to the cabin on the rear side.
abaft of midship toward the stern of midship.
stood to port stood on the left side.
marine battery a battery that converts stored energy into electrical energy, similar to those used in golf carts; these batteries allow lights to operate without the engine running.
his dinghy's over the reel A dinghy is a small boat often carried on a larger boat and used for emergencies; if it were "over the reel," then it was still spooled on the side of the boat, waiting to be used.
transom the outer-side of the back of a boat.
stern gunnel the back upper edge of a boat.
starboard gunnel the right upper edge of a boat.
gunnel roller a roller attached to the upper edge of the boat, used to raise and lower fishing nets.