Larry Watson’s “Montana 1948” is an excellent short novel, published in 1993, about the dark secrets that lurk below the seemingly ideal surface of a powerful family in mid-20th century, small-town Montana. Given the book’s novella-sized length and the dramatic tension Watson generates, I suspect that many readers will consume this work in one sitting. Although book and author are relatively unknown, “Montana 1948” was critically acclaimed, winning the Milkweed National Fiction Prize.
Born and raised in North Dakota, Watson is a poet and short story writer as well as a novelist who currently lives in Milwaukee. Given the rather tedious rivalry between Montana and North Dakota, some native Montanans may carp that a North Dakotan cannot write authoritatively about Big Sky country. But Watson’s portrait of life in the fictional town of Bentrock rings utterly true.
The novel’s narrator is David Hayden, 12-years-old at the time the story opens, a bright, observant boy who is recalling the events of this momentous summer from the perspective of middle age. David’s father, Wesley, with whom David maintains a troubled relationship, is the town sheriff, a post he inherited from his own father, Julian, a bombastic and controlling figure and still one of Bentrock’s most powerful men.
When the Haydens’ Native American housekeeper, Marie Little Soldier, falls ill, apparently of pneumonia, Wesley calls in his brother Frank, a popular, handsome war hero who’s the town doctor and clearly Julian’s favorite son.
But Marie is terrified by Frank, and adamantly refuses his services. At first Wesley and his wife, the strong-willed Gail, assume Marie’s reluctance springs from Indian superstitions. But gradually David’s parents discover that Frank has been regularly sexually molesting Native American women, including Marie, on the nearby reservation during routine medical exams.
Then Marie suddenly dies, and David glimpses Frank leaving the Hayden house shortly after her demise. Did the Native American housekeeper expire of pneumonia, as Frank insists? Or did Frank kill her?
When David shares what he’s witnessed with his father, Wesley immediately starts investigating, and soon discovers increasing evidence that his brother is guilty of murder. The detection of Frank’s likely crime places Wesley in an
agonizing position. Are his ultimate loyalties to his family? Or to the demands of justice in his role as sheriff?
Wesley’s dilemma is compounded when the racist Julian, who couldn’t care less about a dead Indian, insists that his son stop Wesley’s campaign, even threatening physical violence if the sheriff doesn’t desist. As David watches Wesley struggle with this moral quandary, he develops new respect for his father.
As this plot summary suggests, “Montana 1948” is keenly aware of the prejudices Whites still harbored against Native Americans in small Western towns, even half a century after the Indians had been herded onto reservations.
“Montana 1948” wouldn’t be nearly so powerful if it was told from any viewpoint other than David’s. By observing his father’s ethical battle, and the evils concealed beneath the facade of even the most seemingly placid small towns, David grows up, losing his childhood innocence.
Written in a spare but lyrical style, the novel tells how, in David’s words which open the book, “From the summer of my twelfth year I carry a series of images more lasting than any others of my boyhood and indelible beyond all attempts the years make to erase or fade them.”
A Montana Tech English professor, Henry Gonshak’s books column appears on the first Sunday of every month. He can be reached at Hgonshak@mtech.edu.