One of the things I have enjoyed experiencing while reading American literature this year is seeing how much my interests have taken me by surprise. I made the big list of books you can see under the ‘Reading America’ tab before I came out here, focusing mainly on the big American classics, but I just haven’t been interested in picking most of them up. Instead, my imagination was captured by the prairies, and by the pioneers who tamed them, and this is a topic I never thought or knew anything about before. The stories of these women and men are the real America to me, not 19th century doorstops about languid socialites in East Coast cities, and I am so thankful for the books that have come my way and opened my eyes to the vast expanse of rural America and the spirit of its brave settlers. Montana 1948 absolutely enthralled me because it tells the story of an old pioneer town in the mid 20th century, and explores the still existing tension between white families and Native Americans in an area that was settled over one hundred years before. The consequences of pioneering and the treatment of Native Americans by settlers is, I know, an incredibly sensitive topic, and I absolutely loved the lesser known novelist Larry Watson’s sparse, atmospheric depiction of these issues in the setting of a rural, dust road and clapboard Montana town.
The story is told in the form of the now adult David Hayden’s voice, as he looks back to the summer of 1948 when the death of his family’s Native American maid, Marie, shook their small town of Bentrock, Montana. His family had been the most prominent in the town for generations; his grandfather and father were the town’s Sheriffs, and his popular, handsome uncle is the town’s doctor, and its very own war hero. Wealthy, respected and surrounded by friends and family, the Haydens seemed to have charmed lives. However, by the end of that summer of 1948, it had all fallen apart spectacularly, and it all began with the seemingly trivial event of Marie coming down with pneumonia.
David remembers the day Marie became ill, and his mother’s concern; he remembers her calling his uncle Frank, the doctor, and Marie’s terror at the thought of having him look at her. This terror is initially dimissed as an Indian superstition, but it soon becomes aware, after David’s mother’s investigations, that Marie has good reason to be afraid of Frank, who has always been considered a saint and a hero; he has been sexually abusing the Native American women when he medically examines them, and this has been going on for years. Shocked and disbelieving, David’s father confronts his brother; Frank admits that it is true, but he doesn’t care; no one cares about the Indians, after all. They are not a part of the town; living apart from them on their reservation, they are considered by many of the white people to be stupid, lazy, superstitious, and dangerous. Sexual abuse of Native American women is a game, not a crime. However, David’s father does not consider it such; as the town’s sheriff, he makes the very difficult decision to start criminal proceedings against him. While he is doing this, Marie suddenly dies, and the last person seen with her was Frank. Did he murder her to keep her quiet? Was she really just sick? And can David’s father go against everyone in the town’s beliefs and opinions and pursue prosecution against his own brother to prove the point that crimes against Native Americans do matter?
This is a tense, evocative and really rather beautifully written novel that explores the ties and rivalries that run underneath the surface of family life, the loss of childhood innocence when, for the first time, the failures of adults we trust are revealed, racial tension, and the slow decline of the rural way of life in mid century America. It reminded me very much of William Maxwell’s novels, in its elegiac, simple prose, and I was drawn into the lives of the characters from the very first page. For a glimpse of the ‘real’ America and the consequences of urban expansion, this book is an excellent starting place. I loved it, and I also loved reading a book by someone I’d never heard of before, and who doesn’t appear to be particularly well known; I’m looking forward to reading more of his work in the future.