Outside Kabuo’s jail cell, it continues to snow. Ishmael Chambers walks outside and takes in the forces of nature that surround him, which Kabuo’s trial has reminded him of.
Guterson uses snow to symbolize fate, or things that are beyond humankind’s ability to control; thus, the presence of snow evokes Kabuo’s meditations (in Chapter 11) that his trial is fate’s way of punishing him for his warrior ancestry and wartime atrocities. The trial also pushes Ishmael Chambers into his own thoughts of the past.
Ishmael’s memories overwhelm him completely, transporting him back to his teenage love affair with Hatsue: unable to be seen together in public, the young lovers spend many hours alone in their tree on the weekends. The cedar tree provides them with an alternative reality, separate from the judgment and cruelty of society. They lie pressed against one another’s bodies. Young Ishmael thinks of Hatsue constantly, and he dreams of the future they might have together. He imagines escaping to Europe. He believes he and Hatsue were meant to be, and “[gives] his whole soul to love.”
Until this point, Guterson has only hinted at Hatsue and Ishmael’s relationship. Through a sequence of Ishmael’s memories, the reader now learns more about the growth (and eventual decay) of their teenage love affair. Again, Guterson emphasizes the central role the cedar plays in their intimacy: nature, untouched by social norms and prejudices, is the only place the interracial couple can be together. Ishmael dreams of a future with Hatsue, even though such dreams are overly hopeful and unrealistic. Ishmael isn’t obligated to honor his family in the way that Hatsue is, so he is able to “[give] his whole soul to love” in a way she is not.
The young couple opens up to each other in the cedar tree, speaking with the intensity and dramatics of teenagers. But Hatsue is sometimes “cold and silent” with Ishmael in the cedar tree. Hatsue’s silence hurts Ishmael, but Hatsue insists she is not being emotionally withholding. On the contrary, it’s just the way she is: “She had been carefully trained by her upbringing […] to avoid effusive displays of feeling, but this did not mean her heart was shallow,” Hatsue explains. Still, Ishmael frets over Hatsue’s silence.
Hatsue’s “cold and silent” demeanor hurts Ishmael because he does not understand it. Ishmael isn’t being outwardly prejudiced towards Hatsue’s style of emotional expression, but his misunderstanding does parallel the skepticism with which many white islanders’ regard Kabuo’s unreadable coldness in trial. Hatsue’s unreadable demeanor comes from her childhood lessons with Mrs. Shigemura: “She had been carefully trained […] to avoid effusive displays of feeling.” In this way, Hatsue’s silence is linked to a learned obligation to honor Japanese social norms.
Ishmael recalls Hatsue’s “religious side.” Hatsue believes that “all of life [is] impermanent,” and that every action has “consequences for the soul’s future.” For this reason, Hatsue feels very conflicted over their secret meetings. She feels that she will “suffer from the consequences of it.” Outside of their cedar tree, Hatsue and Ishmael essentially ignore one another.
Hatsue’s cultural upbringing impacts her composure and values. Her “religious side” instills within her a belief in the impermanence of life, and a heightened awareness of “consequences for the soul’s future.” Hatsue’s religious upbringing, thus, prevents her from giving herself over to love in the way Ishmael is able to do. The separateness and seclusion of the cedar tree allows Hatsue to forget about her hesitations somewhat; however, when she is in the world—around her family, for example—her cultural obligations are more difficult to ignore, and this (along with the prejudices of other islanders) prevents the couple from letting others know about their relationship.
Back in the present, Ishmael remembers that Hatsue was crowned the Strawberry Princess at the 1941 Strawberry Festival. Ishmael’s father, Arthur Chambers, had covered the event for the local paper. Ishmael watched as Arthur took Hatsue’s photo. Hatsue gave Ishmael an undetectably small smile.
On San Piedro, The Strawberry Princess serves as a symbolic peace offering between the white islanders and the Japanese islanders: the princess bridges the gap between these two groups of people and their conflicting worldviews. When Hatsue is crowned Strawberry Princess, it is symbolic of her anguish at being torn between the American way (Ishmael) and the Japanese way (her family).
Ishmael’s memory flashes forward to when they were high school seniors: In the cedar tree, Hatsue tells Ishmael about her training with Mrs. Shigemura, about how she’d been strongly advised to marry a Japanese boy. She feels that it is “evil” for the two of them to deceive the world. Ishmael disagrees, saying that they’re not evil; the world is. But Hatsue continues to anguish, saying that it drives her mad to lie to her family.
Hatsue speaks more about the forces that prevent her from feeling completely absorbed and confident in the relationship. She feels pressure from her family and from Mrs. Shigemura to marry a Japanese boy, and considers it “evil” to act against her parents’ wishes. Ishmael, who doesn’t share Hatsue’s religious and cultural obligations, struggles to understand how what feels right can be so wrong. He believes they can simply choose not to think about their conflicting cultures. Ishmael’s privilege as a white man allows him to ignore obligations and act on his heart’s impulses in a way Hatsue cannot.
Hatsue expresses her fears about the war; Ishmael responds that he’s going to be drafted and that he has no choice. They sit in the cedar tree, and Ishmael sees that “their absorption in one another […] shield[s] them from certain truths.” Still, it’s hard for Ishmael to ignore the war, even with his absorbing love of Hatsue to distract him.
The cedar tree “shields” Ishmael and Hatsue from the prejudices and obligations of the outside world, but as wartime tensions continue to grow, the couple—even Ishmael, the hopeless romantic—starts to see that they cannot remain in their escapist paradise forever.