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Montana 1948 is a novel by Larry Watson. The 1993 novel focuses on the life of young David Hayden, his family, and the fictional town of Bentrock, and it centers on the struggles of a family torn between loyalty and justice and it encompasses the various different levels of struggles that the Hayden family has to go through. Montana 1948 is a without a doubt a novel about the struggle between honesty and corruption during the tragic events which took place in the 'Wild West' town of Bentrock. In this fictional piece we get to see the misuse of power and reputation through the tyrannical characters of Julian and Frank Hayden. However, despite the persona of his father and brother, Wesley Hayden challenges his family name, and seizes the opportunity to act honestly and with strong moral beliefs.
The novel Montana 1948 traces the events of August 1948 through the recollections of the adult David Hayden. This is how David starts to narrate his story: "From the summer of my twelfth year I carry a series of images more vivid and lasting than any others of my boyhood and indelible beyond all attempts the years make to erase or fade them...." (xv) When David's family's Native American housekeeper Marie falls ill, Frank Hayden, one of the local doctors and David's uncle, is called. When Marie refuses medical treatment, David's parents, Wesley, the local sheriff, and Gail, discover that Frank has been preying on the local Native American women, raping and molesting them. Wesley confronts Frank after dinner at their father's house. Wes and Gail reach a compromise in regards to dealing with Frank. When Marie is found dead, the next day, however, Frank convinces the family that it is pneumonia which has killed her. Not until later that day does David admit to his parents that he saw his uncle exit their house at approximately the time of Marie's death. Wesley goes to work investigating this and eventually arrests his own brother and holds him captive in his basement to avoid the embarrassment Frank would experience by going to the local jail. Eventually this all gets too much for Gail and she wishes for Frank to be released out of her home. When Wesley talks to his brother, Frank doesn't deny killing Marie and molesting numerous other Indian women. Wesley's moral values override his family loyalty and he decides to take his brother to be locked up in the local jail the next day. Later that night the family wakes to the sound of jars smashing in the basement. In the morning Wesley finds that Frank has committed suicide by slitting his wrists with the glass. Here David through his recollection tells Wesley's reaction to finding Frank dead in the basement; "The next morning when my dad went downstairs to give Uncle Frank his coffee, I heard him yell, "Oh, no! Oh my god, no!" (152). However, the family's problems are essentially solved when Frank commits suicide, letting the rest of the town believe Frank died by accident. Soon after, the family moves out of Montana, as the secrets they have kept becomes too much to bear.
David is the son of the Mercer County's sheriff, Wesley Hayden, and experiences many events which are indelible from his memory. The death of Little Marie Soldier, David's housekeeper, was the first event which would ultimately change David's life and also altered the way that he thought about his father, Wesley, in that before her death he thought that he was not a true sheriff, saying that he "didn't even look like a proper sheriff" and that he carried "the wrong kind of gun for a sheriff."(5) Despite the sordid nature of his uncle's crimes, and the effect they have on the Hayden family, David brings to mind a memory of his parents who are strong enough to withstand the pressures exerted by Frank's crimes, Julian's rage and the facts. The events that took place in the story irrevocably changed Wesley Hayden's life in several ways, both good and bad.
Wesley Hayden was born in 1910 in Mercer County and grew up on a cattle ranch outside Bentrock and moved to Bentrock with his parents and brother in the early twenties. When he was sixteen a horse kicked him in the leg and left him with a permanent limp. He was going to be a lawyer but was forced to follow in his father's footsteps. He is secretly jealous of his brother, but he doesn't take after his father in the sense that, he doesn't hate Indians as much as his father does. "Then after a long, reverent pause, Grandfather announced, 'Now I'd like to bring my son up here'â€¦ But my father didn't move. He just stood there. Like every other man in the crowd, smiling and applauding, while his brother stepped up on the table. Uncle Frank had not hesitated either; he knew immediately that Grandfather was referring to him" (37). Here the narrator tries to shows the relationship which Wesley and Frank shared with their father and how David analyzed it. In the entire novel, Wesley has to face the decisions regarding justice in several cases. The story is all about the manner in which he decides to give importance to justice over other ties and the problems which he needs to face in this decision making. The different ways in which a reader learns to construct a relation with him is very exemplary. There are things like the manner in which he carries his small Italian gun, the way in which he keeps overlooking from any crime that takes place and also the manner in which he just avoids hassle in his life, paint a picture about his character. In the entire scrutiny, it has to be understood that he is one person who cannot be respected because of the traits that he is always associated with such as not acting or dressing like a true sheriff, and always avoiding conflict. In the longer run, it turns out to be quite positive when the views are revamped and the manner in which he takes the necessary decisions, ultimately, raise his view for the common people.
In 1948, David is only 12 years old. The entire story is through his perspective and how he sees things, people and characters. One very basic and essential aspect about David is that he is very meticulous observer and hence is able to understand very fine subtleties of human behavior and their approach which might be impossible to perceive for children of his age. The book starts with the way in which David, who is Wesley's son often, describes him to be. "He wore a shirt and tie, as many of the men in town did, but at least they wore boots and Stetsons; my father brogans and a fedora. He had a gun but he never carried it, on duty or off"(5). He often explains that Wesley cannot be seen as a stereotypical cop, especially because of the manner in which he dresses himself and carries his personality. He never carries a side arm and this small aspect signifies that he doesn't want to be involved in any kind of conflict. So, on the overall basis, the manner in which Watson has weaved David's and Wesley's character, it becomes very clear that his son loves him but does not respect him for his profession. And so he goes on to say "Oh, he arrested the usual weekly drunks, mediated an occasional dispute about fence lines or stray cattle, calmed a few domestic disturbances, and warned the town's teenagers about getting rowdy in Wood's Café, but by and large being sheriff of Mercer County did not require great strength or courage" (5).
With the gradual increase in the pace of the book, it becomes clearer that Wesley is a worse character than what was assumed before. As the entire drama that surrounds Frank, his brother, unfolds it clears the fact that Wesley cannot be called a noble sheriff. Very often, he is seen to be a coward who doesn't want to see the right picture. He doesn't want to try his own brother with the charge of sexual assault. At the same time, it is known to the readers that Wesley is one character who doesn't have the guts to stand against his fears. Even though he is the town sheriff he struggles a lot in the book with having to arrest his own brother and when people are arguing he likes to be the mediator. He brings something else up or suggests a family vacation or painting a house.
But it's the very end of the novel which reveals his real side and makes the pieces fall to the right place. There comes a time when Wesley restores his entire self esteem and makes a very shocking decision. He not only puts his own brother in jail for committing the murder but also fights with himself for making this tough decision. In spite of the fact that there was no evidence against his brother, Wes decides to stand on the firm ground of justice and make a mark for himself. Wes is the hero because he turns in his own brother. He stands up for the Native American people and upholds justice. He does what most people would have a hard time doing, turning over their family. It might have been hard to turn in his brother, it was the right thing he did. Here David goes to describe his father's words as Wesley tries to justify his decision and action; "David, I believe that in this world people must pay for their crimes. It doesn't matter who you are or who you relations are; if you do wrong, you pay. I believe that. I have to" (156). Wesley tells David this to tell him what he thinks right and wrong are. I think it is a good lesson that Wesley is teaching his son about doing the right thing. Wesley also shows his power when he arrests Frank, his own brother, and locks him in his basement. "He's in the basement. Goddamn it! Don't you get it I've arrested him. He's down there now" (101).
Accordingly, the novel is about confronting the decisions which were made by Wesley at his post and the manner in which he is able to reach the decision of being just and fair. There are various ways in which the writer reveals the agony and pain which Wes had to suffer for taking this stand. The book also raises questions about the degree to which a human should go for balancing between loyalty and justice. The manner in which the words have been chosen is very direct, sophisticated and hence, they are able to connect with the wider audience. The dialogue is crisp and has a very clear impact on the reader's mind. The plot has been narrated in such a manner that the reader is able to perceive the entire storyline. There are limited characters and each of them has their own distinct feature that aids in pulling the story forward. Moreover, the manner in which David interprets and perceives his entire year of 1948 adds another level of maturity in his behavior. The new knowledge incorporates dramatic side to his life. The first lesson which he learns is the importance of the family name and no matter whether he uses it or not, the name always has a particular power. Especially if the post of sheriff is linked with the family name, the entire society tends to automatically respect the family.
The style of writing in this book is in a very nonfictional manner that further tends to make the reader believe the story and the reality of it. The manner in which the perspectives have been limited throws light on the storyline, making it more real and acceptable. The style and theme is very simple and every family person can associate with it. Montana 1948 has a lot of twists and turns and it proves to produce the necessary impact of the readers through the usage of David's perspective and how he tries to understand the various aspects of struggle that are being explained. The flow of the story is remarkable and it adds its own appeal to the plot making it even more convincing and interesting to scrutinize. The book also shows different aspects of relationships and how the importance of justice is credited more significant than any other ties.