Montana 1948
by Larry Watson (1993)
Milkweed Editions (2007)
186 pp

It has been over a decade since I moved away from the small town where I was raised. My parents, both raised in the same town by parents who were also raised in the same town, moved away just last week. They didn’t move far, but still there is something about their moving away from a small town that has nestled our family for a few generations. Over the past year or so I’ve been increasingly curious about that town. Having lived in the community for so long, my family knew just about everyone, old and young, and there were a lot of great people. Growing up, I rarely caught whiff of a scandal. People had problems, children were killed in accidents, but, for the most part, for all I knew, anything sordid was minimal.

A couple of months ago I asked my parents to give me some history of the town, some of the history that as a child you never learn about. I wasn’t interested in scandal for the sake of learning about a scandal. I was more interested in learning more about the community and what unspoken events shaped it and hung around its neck during my childhood. What haunted the people I knew when I was too young and careless to see it in their faces? For better or for worse, my parents have been unable to supply me with much information. Either my childish impressions of tranquility were true (and I suspect in a good number of cases it was — though certainly not all) or people were very good at keeping to themselves. All of this was much on my mind while I read the small-town tale Montana 1948.

Montana 1948 reminded me at times of So Long See You Tomorrow. Here we have David Hayden, a man past middle age, looking back on the events at the end of a childhood summer: “From the summer of my twelfth year I carry a series of images more vivid and lasting that any others of my boyhood and indelible beyond all attempts the years make to erase or fade them. . . .” The images that have so stuck with David are (1) a Sioux woman lying in fever on a bed in his house, (2) his father kneeling on the kitchen floor in front of his mother, begging her to help him, and (3) his mother loading a shotgun she intended to fire. These very transformative and tragic events happened in a small Montana town and, incredible as it might seem at first, without most of the town even knowing about it. For David, though, these nearly invisible events changed his life for always; if not for them “perhaps I would have lived out my life with an illusion about my family and perhaps even the human community.”

We certainly see how these invisible events, particularly the aftermath, has affected how he sees the world at an older age, after he has become a history teacher rather than follow his father in his law practice:

I did not — do not — believe in the purity and certainty of history over law. Not at all. Quite the opposite. I find history endlessly amusing, knowing, as I do, that the record of any human community might omit stories of sexual abuse, murder, suicide . . . . Who knows — perhaps any region’s most dramatic, most sensational stories were not played out in the public view but were confined to small, private places. A doctors’ office, say. A white framed house on a quiet street.

In 1948, the Haydens are a well known family around town, even though they are a fairly small family. David’s father is the sheriff. His uncle is a respected doctor and war hero. David’s paternal grandfather was also the sheriff. He basically ran the town, and he reveled in the power: “To him, being the law’s agent probably seemed part of a natural progression — first you master the land and its beasts, then you regulate the behavior of men and women.” David’s mother has a deep resentment to the Haydens. For one, she has an obvious distaste of the grandfather. For another, she didn’t like what being a Hayden meant for her husband:

If my father didn’t fit my ideal of what he should be in his occupation, he certainly didn’t fit my mother’s either. She wanted him to be an attorney. Which he was; he graduated from the University of North Dakota Law School, and he was a member of both the North Dakota and Montana State Bar Associations. My mother fervently believed that my father — indeed, all of us — would be happier if he practiced law and if we did not live in Montana, and her reasons had little to do with the potentially hazardous nature of a sheriff’s work compared to an attorney’s or the pay scale along which those two professions positioned themselves. She wanted my father to find another job and for us to move because only doing those things would, she felt, allow my father to be fully himself.

David, at twelve, has a slight awareness of these family politics, about what’s expected of him and about how similar expectations have altered his father’s life and his mother’s demeanor, but until 1948 he was never really conscious of it all. That was the summer that his mother and father hired Marie Little Soldier, a Hunkpapa Sioux girl from the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota. David has an innocent crush on Marie and looks up to her boyfriend. As can be guessed, most in the town have a deep-seeded prejudice towards Indians, even those with otherwise good intentions.

This is as good a place as any to mention something that I would just as soon forget. My father did not like Indians. No, that’s not exactly accurate, because it implies that my father disliked Indians, which wasn’t so. He simply held them in low regard. He was not a hate-filled bigot — he probably thought he was free of prejudice! — and he could treat Indians with generosity, kindness, and respect (as he could treat every human being). 

As an older man, one of the ways David fights against his father’s prejudice is by slipping into a nice pair of moccasins when he gets home from work. As a child he was aware of the prejudice, and it offended him how Marie was treated at times. Soon Marie becomes very sick. When David’s mother says she’ll call Doctor Hayden, Marie nearly has a fit. She won’t see him. Discounting it as some Indian misconception about the medical field, David’s dad calls his brother anyway. This is the simple beginning of a string of events in which Marie will end up dead and David’s father will have to decide how to balance his role as sheriff and his role as a Hayden.

It is much more than that, though, and not nearly so simple. Through David’s youthful eyes, being recalled painfully by his elder self, we see a lot of the beauty that makes communities and families, and we see just how fragile such things can be, or how strong. We see how he begins to honor his father not for the bravery he must face being a sheriff (he knows his father’s job does not entail much danger) but for the less visible burdens his father must bear:

I hadn’t realized until that moment how large a part of my father’s job this was. When someone’s son rolled his pickup on a county highway, or someone’s father shot himself climbing over a fence when he was deer hunting, or when some woman’s husband dropped dead of a heart attack in a hotel down in Miles City, it was my father’s duty to notify the family. Or when a drunk lay down on the tracks right in the path of a Great Northern freight train, it was my father’s job to find out if he had any family. To this say I cannot hear the phrase — “pending notification of next of kin” — without thinking that someon out there, someone like my father, is toting around a basket of grief, looking for a doorstep to deposit it on. To think I once believed the hardest part of his job would be the dangerous criminals he might face.

I brought up So Long, See You Tomorrow at the beginning of this review not only to show some similarities in narration but also because both books are quiet, introspective looks into the past. Also, like So Long, See You Tomorrow, Montana 1948 is a special book, a classic piece of American literature not because it is widely read (though it should be) but because it simply is in its depiction of a facet of American life and counterlife.

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