How does the writer use weather and environment in the novel?
The novel is set on San Piedro Island, a small island north of Puget Sound in the Washington state area. The island setting is fitting in several ways. The people of San Piedro Island have everything they need on the island; they are self-sufficient. Additionally, on a small island like San Piedro everyone knows everyone else. This works well in a novel where history and relationships are integral to the story. The islanders are not simply neighbors, but employers and employees, family and friends, lovers and enemies. The relationships between the island citizens are intimate because of their proximity to each other. Arthur Chambers, the owner of the local island newspaper, finds the island lifestyle to be good and bad, good because people are careful not to step on each other’s toes, but bad because many feelings are repressed to avoid creating tension and strife. But the reality is that tension is exactly what exists between the two races that inhabit the island. Both white and Japanese races have everything they need to sustain their own culture and way of life on the island, but each race is isolated and even seeks isolation from the other, just as the island is isolated from the mainland because of the surround waters. Guterson uses particularly bleak descriptions of the island to make it seem a remote place, though it does have a certain beauty in some descriptions.
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The young Ishmael and Hatsue end up in the cedar tree for the first time because a rainstorm drives them there. For Ishmael and Hatsue, the cedar tree is a sanctuary from society and the forces of prejudice that attempt to keep them apart. The smell of the cedars and the surrounding forest is very, very strong and Ishmael relates the smell to his experiences with Hatsue in the Cedar tree. The tree is the only place where they are free to express their love for each another. The tree seems to exist in a different world that is unaffected by chance, circumstance and other people's beliefs and attempts to control. The tree shelters Ishmael and Hatsue from storms both literal, such as the falling rain and snow, and figurative, such as war and prejudice. The tree's isolation, however, prevents the couple from living fully in the world and from accepting and acknowledging that life is not always fair. For Hatsue, in particular, the tree becomes a prison of deceit, leading her to believe in a relationship that is untenable in the face of the pressures of the outside world. The tree imprisons Ishmael in a similar fashion, keeping him in an unrealistically romantic relationship with Hatsue.
The time period is also important. It is December 1954, less than a decade from the end of World War II. Fear, racism, and hatred of the Japanese are still fresh in the minds of many white Americans. One day of the trial takes place on December 7th, an important day in history, as it was on this date that Japan attacked the United States at Pearl Harbour. The Japanese in the novel are still seeking to rebuild their lives after being forced into internment camps during the war. The social and political climate intensifies the already existing tensions between the races.
The weather in the novel is often related to memories and events of characters in the novel. The snowstorm however is related to the inability of the islanders to judge whether Kabuo is innocent or guilty, and inhibits them in doing so. The storm ‘battered against the courtroom windows and rattled them in their casements’, fells power lines, and sends cars careening into ditches. The storm's fury affects the islanders, interrupting their lives and routines: the jurors are stranded in the courthouse, and fishing comes to a standstill as boats capsize in the harbor. Those who go outside and face the storm directly lose their sense of direction and vision and are thrust into a relatively extreme struggle to survive. The storm is linked to the trial very well in this quotation, ‘…everyone wished unconsciously that it would come to an end and grant them peace…’ The islanders wish for the trial to be over so that it is not on their conscience. It relates to how perverse the trial is to the islanders, how nothing like this has happened to them and how the racial prejudice still affects their conscience. The storm is also used to show how certain characters have quirks in their personality. Ishmael is seen as a lost romantic through the novel, always dreaming of what could have been with Hatsue, he seems unable to let go of the past, a person who is incapable of handling a realistic relationship. In chapter we can see him in a more utilitarian mood, as he travels through the snow in his Jeep. He carefully checks his snow chains and drives extremely sensibly in the conditions. There is a connection with the past, as he has only kept the jeep in remembrance of his father who owned it before him, but in this instance we see that he has a deep admiration for the weather and especially the current snowstorm.
Other incidents of adverse weather likewise affect the novel's course of events. The disorienting fog on the water on the night of the death of Carl is indirectly responsible for his death because it causes him to lose his way and end up in the risky waters of the shipping channel. Rough seas complicate Ishmael's platoon landing at Betio during the war, increasing the carnage and losses the platoon suffers.
In every case, nature pushes human beings, controls them, or puts them at its mercy. Humans become complacent, as shown when Ishmael sees so many cars overturned after the storm, and seek to survive and cope as best as possible.
In conclusion, Guterson uses the Environment the character is in to add to particular scenes, with the description relating to how the character feels about the experience. The overall feeling of independent isolation amongst the islanders is carried throughout the whole novel from the environment. The weather is used to add underlying messages to certain themes in the novel. The whole theme of the weather is based on being a symbol for the chance, uncontrollable incidents that affect human lives.