Snow Falling on Cedars


David Guterson

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Snow Falling on Cedars: Chapter 6 Summary & Analysis

Horace Whaley is cross-examined by Nels Gudmundsson. Nels asks Horace to explain the significance of the pink foam he found during his autopsy. Nels emphasizes that, according to Horace’s testimony, the presence of the foam is proof that Carl died by drowning, not by murder, specifically—which is also what Horace stated in his autopsy report. Nels makes Horace read the relevant section aloud from the report. Nels notes that the report specifies that Horace’s findings could be proven “beyond doubt.”
Nels steers Horace’s testimony away from biased speculation and towards the facts they can ascertain by scientific observation alone. All they can know “beyond doubt” is that the pink foam proves that Carl was alive when he fell into the water. Nels’s interrogation doesn’t allow Horace to bolster his testimony with subjective, personal input in the way Hooks’s did.
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Nels shifts his attention to another part of the autopsy report, in which Horace noted the presence of another wound, on Carl’s right hand. Horace reveals that the wound had been fresh. Nels then asks Horace about Carl’s head wound. Horace states that the wound had been left by a “narrow and flat” object. Nels asks Horace if this is an observation or an inference, but Horace snaps that “it’s [his] job to infer.” Still, Nels challenges Horace’s inference, and asks Horace whether it’s also possible that Carl could’ve gotten the injury from falling against part of the Susan Marie. Horace admits that these scenarios are also within the realm of possibility, and that he cannot tell with certainty whether Carl’s wound occurred before or after death.
Nels explicitly calls out the extent to which Horace’s evidence is the product of speculation. Horace’s idea that Carl’s head wound was left by a “narrow and flat” object is nothing more that inference. When Horace snaps that “it’s [his] job to infer,” he reveals that autopsies are often not entirely “factual”; rather, they are a combination of hard “facts” and inferences that coroners stitch together to construct a cohesive version of the “truth.” When Nels asks Horace whether it’s possible that Carl could’ve incurred the head wound by falling against part of the Susan Marie, and confirms that it’s possible that the injury could have occurred before or after death, he forces Horace to admit that his inferences are not the only version of the truth.
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Art Moran takes pleasure in Nels’s interrogation and in Horace’s discomfort. He remembers the dread he felt driving to Carl’s house to inform Carl’s wife, Susan Marie, of Carl’s death, and his thoughts turn to this tragic scene. On his way over to the Heines’ house, Art had considered the least painful way to tell Susan Marie the tragic news. He knew Susan Marie, so he couldn’t be professional and impersonal when he broke the news to her. Art had run into Carl’s two sons as he arrived at the house. Susan Marie came to the door with the baby, the couple’s youngest child. When Art told her about Carl, “She looked at him as if he’d spoken in Chinese.” As the news set in, Susan Marie responded with shock, staring off into space. In retrospect, Art Moran recalls, Susan Marie’s detached response had been strange.
Art feels pleasure at Horace’s discomfort because he is still upset by Horace’s condescending “Sherlock Holmes” remark, which insinuated that Art had made unfounded assumptions about Carl’s death. Art’s uncertainty about how to tell Susan Marie about Carl’s death shows again that truth isn’t only about facts—it’s also about how facts are delivered, a theme that plays out throughout the trial. When Art observes that Susan Marie interprets his solemn news with disbelief, “as though he’d spoken in Chinese,” he subtly indicates the complete lack of understanding that exists between the white characters and the characters of Asian descent.
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