Due to the violence and explicit sexuality in the novel, in some markets it was placed on a list of banned books. The book, however, remains a popular novel in English classes at high schools in the United States, Canada, and around the world. Portions of it have appeared several times on the English Literature AP Exam. In New South Wales, Australia, it is part of the HSC syllabus. Some Catholic schools have temporarily removed the book from their shelves because of its sexual nature.
Set on the fictional San Piedro Island in the northern Puget Sound region of the state of Washington coast in 1954, the plot revolves around a murder case in which Kabuo Miyamoto, a Japanese American, is accused of killing Carl Heine, a respected fisherman in the close-knit community. The trial 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, Ishmael Chambers, a World War II veteran who lost an arm fighting the Japanese. Torn by a sense of hatred for the Japanese, Chambers struggles with his love for Kabuo's wife, Hatsue, and his conscience, knowing that Kabuo is truly innocent.
Spearheading the prosecution are the town's sheriff, Art Moran, and prosecutor, Alvin Hooks. Leading the defense is the old experienced Nels Gudmundsson. An underlying theme throughout the trial is prejudice. Several witnesses, including Etta Heine, Carl's mother, accuse Kabuo of murdering Carl for racial and personal reasons. Etta is stereotypical anti-Japanese; she represents the part of America that persecuted Japanese Americans during the Second World War. This stance is not without irony, as 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. As Etta Heine is a German American, by the same standard she could be blamed for Nazi war crimes.
Also involved in the trial are Horace Whaley, the town coroner, and Ole Jurgensen, an elderly man who sells his strawberry field to Carl. The strawberry field is contested in the trial. The land was originally owned by Carl Heine Sr. The Miyamotos lived in a house on the Heines' land and picked strawberries for Mr. Heine. Kabuo and Carl Heine Jr. were close friends as children. Kabuo's father eventually approached Heine Sr. about purchasing seven acres of the farm. Though Etta opposed the sale, Carl Sr. agreed. The payments were to be made over a ten-year period. 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. In 1944, Carl Sr. died due to a heart attack and Etta Heine sold the land to Ole Jurgensen. When Kabuo returned after the war, he was extremely bitter towards Etta for reneging on the land sale. When Ole 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. During the trial, the disputed land is presented as a family feud and the motivation behind Carl's murder.