The novel opens in a courtroom, which is filled to capacity. Kabuo Miyamoto, appearing detached and unreadable, sits at the defendant’s table. While some people think his blank facial expression “suggest[s] a disdain for the proceedings,” other people think it “veil[s] a fear of the verdict that [is] to come.” Carl Heine, the gill-netter for whose murder Kabuo is convicted, was well-known in the town; the atmosphere of the courtroom is thus solemn and grave.
Kabuo’s facial expression is of great concern to everyone in the courtroom. Since the courtroom is symbolic of the task of discerning truth from an assemblage of facts, the prominence of Kabuo’s face becomes especially significant. Before the jury begins to hear the “facts” presented in court, they begin to form their own “truths” based on assumptions they make about Kabuo’s expression: that he must harbor “disdain for the proceedings,” or that he has reason to be afraid of the “verdict […] to come.” Guterson also hints at the racial prejudice directed at Kabuo—he positions Kabuo’s unreadable face as the opposite of Carl Heine’s well-known personality.
The courtroom is Judge Llewellyn Fielding’s, and it is “run-down and small.” The jurors, who have “studiously impassive faces” are an eclectic bunch: “two truck farmers, a retired crabber, a bookkeeper, a carpenter, a boat builder, a grocer, and a halibut schooner deckhand,” and “a retired waitress, a sawmill secretary, [and] two nervous fishwives. A hairdresser accompanied them as alternate.”
Guterson introduces the reader to Judge Fielding, who will preside over Kabuo’s trial. The fact that the courtroom is “run-down and small” suggests that the town in which it resides is likely not a prosperous urban center. That the story takes place in a small town hints at the stereotype that small towns can be insular, small-minded, and prejudiced. Guterson also suggests the local flavor of the town through the jurors’ professions: they’re blue-collar workers, not flashy executive bankers and lawyers, for example. The “studiously impassive faces” of the jury parallel the “unreadable” quality of Kabuo Miyamoto’s face, though whereas Kabuo’s opaque demeanor is seen in a negative light, the jury’s “impassive faces” don’t seem to evoke much judgment or skepticism.
Snow falls outside the courthouse, and beyond it lies the town of Amity Harbor, which contains “a few wind-whipped and decrepit Victorian mansions, remnants of a lost era of seagoing optimism.” Beyond this, the land is covered in cedar trees. Kabuo watches the snow fall and recalls that during the 77 days he’d been imprisoned—late September through early December—he’d missed all of autumn. The snow “[strikes] him as infinitely beautiful.”
Guterson introduces the reader to the town of Amity Harbor. He reinforces how downtrodden the town is, drawing attention to the “wind-whipped and decrepit Victorian mansions” that dot its streets, as well as the town’s “lost” economic “optimism.” Guterson also mentions the cedar trees and snow that lie beyond the confines of the courthouse. As will become clearer later in the book, both cedars and snow symbolize life apart from humankind: cedars evoke life free of society’s judgment, and snow symbolizes the elements of life that cannot be controlled by humans. In contrast, the courtroom symbolizes humanity’s ability to exercise choice in the situations over which they have control. In separating the courtroom and the trial from the forces of nature, Guterson hints at the divide between the uncontrollable forces that shape the world and the ways in which humankind can exercise free will. The snow is “infinitely beautiful” to Kabuo in part because it is separate from the human choices and injustices that have led to his imprisonment.
The courthouse is located on San Piedro Island in Amity Harbor, the island’s only town. Amity Harbor is a small, “eccentric” fishing village. It rains constantly. The island is isolated from much everything else. Though downtrodden, the town boasts great natural beauty, brimming with green hills covered in cedar trees.
The isolation of San Piedro Island is crucial in understanding how the theme of prejudice plays out in the novel. Because the Island is so isolated from everything else, its residents are largely cut off from the rest of the world. The views they hold are based in an insider/outsider dichotomy, which leads to a lot of prejudice against the Japanese immigrants that make their home on the island.
Back in the courtroom, there are “out-of-town reporters” from larger cities covering the trial, as well as Ishmael Chambers, San Piedro’s sole reporter. Ishmael is 31 years old and has the look of a man who’s been through war. Ishmael has only one arm, having lost the other during the war. Ishmael knows Kabuo from high school.
Guterson underscores San Piedro’s isolation by drawing an explicit distinction between Ishmael Chambers and the “out-of-town reporters” from various urban metropolises. The “othering” of these reporters reinforces how prejudiced islanders are against non-locals; more specifically, it sets the stage for the prejudice Kabuo will face throughout the trial as a result of his “othered” Japanese ancestry.
As he sits in the courtroom, Ishmael recalls how he’d tried to speak with the accused man’s wife, Hatsue Miyamoto, earlier that morning. Hatsue, who was sitting on a bench outside the assessor’s office in the courthouse, turned away from him when he asked how she was doing. But as Ishmael continued to plead with her, she turned and faced him, with a piercing “darkness” in her eyes. Ishmael could not tell with certainty what Hatsue meant to convey with her eyes, and he would remember this darkness for years after the trial. Ishmael took in the neatness of Hatsue’s appearance and the distance with which she regarded him. She told him to go away.
Ishmael doesn’t behave outwardly prejudiced towards Hatsue, but he responds negatively to the unreadable “darkness” he detects in her eyes. Throughout the novel, silence and controlled emotions are seen as favorable or neutral qualities in white characters; however, when Japenese characters demonstrate these same qualities, they are viewed in a harsher, more skeptical light. This first interaction between Ishmael and Hatsue also hints to the reader that the two have a shared history.
Now, as he sits in the courtroom, Ishmael ponders this less than savory interaction with Hatsue. He feels uncomfortable sitting amongst the other reporters, and resolves to find an “anonymous” seat after the trial’s morning recess. Ishmael’s mind wanders and he considers the snow, recalling his fond early memories of beautiful winters.
By focusing on Ishmael’s prolonged fixation on his failed interaction with Hatsue, Guterson foreshadows their complicated mutual history. Meanwhile, Ishmael’s thoughts of snow transport him away from the courtroom and into the uncontrollable realm of nature. His longing to be away from the courtroom (and perhaps society more generally) and towards nature hint at an inner tension between an adherence to social norms and the desires of the heart.