Montana 1948 by Larry Watson

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.

15 comments

  1. Thank you for such a sensitive review, Rachel. Watson has been on my radar screen for a while, now on my TBR list, I will have to find and read this book. The mid-20th century is really such an interesting time in America – across the globe, really, but my frame of reference is here in the States and it was happening as I was growing up. The mores and values changing, racial and women’s issues, which always seem to go hand-in-hand, and the flushing out of such issues as this novel seems to raise.
    You have done it again; brought forth another interesting book.

    1. Thank you Penny, I’m so glad you enjoyed my review and have been tempted by the book! Mid century is such a fascinating period, isn’t it – and so little studied or written about – just glamorised in TV shows.

  2. Another book to add to the pile! How do you find these suckers?

    Re: the prairies: I don’t think you have been able to explore out West in real life? When you do, it can be absolutely beautiful in a barren sort of way. I live on the edge of the Great Plains; my area is called the South High Plains, and when you leave the city, there are huge wide expanses of wild land, very few trees, and you can see for miles. Out in the country, it can be extremely quiet, with only the wind in your face and the bluest sky I have ever seen up above. In fact, after living here so long, I have become rather attached to Big Sky Country, and find it quite a tough transition to visit cities such as NYC since I find the canyons between the high rise buildings quite claustrophic. I think the closest thing for an English person would be perhaps the Anglian Fens…?

    I am so glad you are enjoying praire and pioneer life. Our city here was founded by pioneers, and we have a large statue of a pioneer family downtown to represent the familes who came here.

    1. I was given this by a friend, so I can’t take credit for it unfortunately! But I’m so glad it came my way as I don’t think I would have found it independently.

      No I haven’t – and I long to. Descriptions such as yours only whet my appetite even more and I hope to see that big sky for myself one day!

      What a beautiful place you live in – I’m so glad you appreciate it.

  3. I’m pretty sure I’m going to say the exact same comment here as I did for another review of yours, but you write such stellar reviews. I wish I wrote like you — you capture the sense of the book and convey how it impacted you, and I literally want to read everything you do because I’m captivated.

  4. For more about the Hayden family look for Watson’s book, “Justice.” These are short stories as I remember, and they fill in the Hayden family history prior to the events in 1948. “Montana, 1948” is on my all time list of favorite novels (as is Maxwell’s “So Long, See You Tomorrow”). For another, rather different novel about the American Midwest try “Winter Wheat” by (I think) Mildred White. I may have the author’s name wrong but it’s pretty close to that.

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