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Carl's body had been pulled from the sea, trapped in his own net, on September 16, 1954. The trial, held in December 1954 during a snowstorm that grips the entire island, occurs in the midst of deep anti-Japanese sentiments following World War II.
Covering the case is the editor of the town's one-man newspaper, the San Piedro Review, Ishmael Chambers, a World War II US Marine Corps veteran who lost an arm fighting the Japanese at the Battle of Tarawa.
Leading the defense is the old, experienced Nels Gudmondsson. Ishmael's last thoughts before passing out on a navy hospital ship when his arm is amputated at the Battle of Tarawa are of anger towards Hatsue. died due to a heart attack and Etta Heine sold the land to Jurgensen.
Several witnesses, including Etta Heine, Carl's mother, accuse Kabuo of murdering Carl for racial and personal reasons. When Kabuo returned after the war, he was extremely bitter towards Etta for reneging on the land sale.
Torn by a sense of hatred for the Japanese, Chambers struggles with his love for Kabuo's wife, Hatsue, and his conscience, wondering if Kabuo is truly innocent. The payments were to be made over a ten-year period.
Through extended flashbacks, the reader learns that Ishmael had fallen in love with Hatsue when the two attended high school together right before the war. However, before the last payment was made, war erupted between the US and Japan following Pearl Harbor, and all islanders of Japanese ancestry were forced to relocate to internment camps.
Kabuo Miyamoto (a decorated war veteran of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team), experienced prejudice because of his ancestry, following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The Miyamotos lived in a house on the Heines' land and picked strawberries for Mr. When Jurgensen suffered a stroke and decided to sell the farm, he was approached by Carl Heine Jr., hours before Kabuo arrived to try to buy the land back.
Also involved in the trial are Horace Whaley, the town coroner, and Ole Jurgensen, an elderly man who sells his strawberry field to Carl. During the trial, the disputed land is presented as a family feud and the motivation behind Carl's murder.
Ishmael's search of the maritime records at Point White lighthouse station reveals that on the night that Carl Heine died, a freighter, the SS West Corona, had passed through the channel where Carl had been fishing at a.m., just five minutes before his watch had stopped.
Ishmael realizes that Carl was likely to have been thrown overboard by the force of the freighter's wake.