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It's 1954 on an island off the Washington coast and Kabuo Miyamota is on trial for his life. Kabuo, a struggling commercial fisherman, has been accused of killing another fisherman, Carl Heine, over a land dispute.

It's easy to see why he might be convicted. There's motive, opportunity, and a pile of circumstantial evidence. There's also a lot of prejudice against Japanese Americans who are regarded with hostility especially after World War II. And Kabuo himself doesn't help. Here is the opening sentence of this beautiful novel.

The accused man, Kabuo Miyamota, sat proudly upright with a rigid grace, his palms placed softly on the defendant's table-the posture of a man who has detached himself insofar as this is possible at his own trial. Some in the gallery would later say that his stillness suggested a disdain for the proceedings; others felt certain it veiled a fear of the verdict that was to come. Whichever it was, Kabuo showed nothing-not even a flicker of the eyes.

"You look like one of Tojo's soldiers," his wife later tells him. "You'd better quit sitting up so straight and tall. These jury people will be afraid of you."

But he can't. And that detachment, that strict insistence on giving nothing to the world, is one of the many themes Guterson explores. Another is the idea of perspective. As we get deeper into the trial and learn the secrets of each person involved, we see what's happened to these characters and how their life experiences influences everything they do. How can the true cause of a death be determined when everyone-even the medical examiner-can only see through the tiny, flawed lens of his or her own beliefs.

This is especially true for another one of the novel's protagonists, Ishmael Chambers. Ishmael, who runs the island's newspaper, lost his arm fighting the Japanese, and the terrible pain in that phantom limb represents all the things he doesn't have-a wife, a sense of community, the life he wanted. Ishmael fell in love with Kabuo's wife when they were young, and he's never really left the hollowed out cedar tree where they used to meet. Kabuo may hold himself back at his trial, but Ishmael isn't even really there.

This is a wonderful novel. It's addictively plot-driven yet the events that take place are all in the service of the larger ideas that Guterson is exploring. Highly recommend.


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