Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Sometimes, the experience of coming of age happens more or less peacefully. Other times, it’s traumatic. Either way, coming of age often leaves an indelible mark on a person. Let’s take a look at a dramatic coming of age today, and turn the spotlight on Larry Watson’s Montana 1948.
The real action of the story begins in the small town of Bentrock, the county seat of Mercer County, Montana. It’s 1948, and twelve-year-old David Hayden has what he thinks is a settled existence with his parents, Wesley and Gail. Wesley Hayden is the sheriff of Mercer County; but as a rule, that doesn’t amount to much more than locking up drunks until they sober up. Life has a predictable routine, and the Hayden name is a respected one in the area.
Everything changes when the family’s housekeeper, Marie Little Soldier, falls ill with pneumonia. To everyone’s shock, she refuses to allow Wesley’s brother Frank, a well-known doctor, to treat her. At first, she won’t explain why, but finally she confesses. As it turns out, Frank Hayden has been raping some of his female patients from the local Fort Warren (Sioux) Indian Reservation. No-one has spoken out against him because the Hayden name is too powerful. Besides, who would believe the story? Marie admits that she, too, has been one of the doctor’s victims.
Then, Marie dies. At first it looks very much like a sudden relapse, although she’d been doing much better. But there are pieces of evidence that don’t add up. Why, for instance, was Frank near the house on the day she died? And what about the accusations of rape?
Now, Wesley Hayden is faced with a terrible choice. It’s very likely that his brother is a serial rapist. He could be a murderer, too, if he killed Marie to keep her quiet. So, on the one hand, Wesley has to do his job. On the other hand, this is his brother, who happens to be a decorated World War II veteran. What’s more, he is a highly respected doctor, and an accusation against him shouldn’t be made lightly. There’s also the fact that Wesley and Frank’s parents are very supportive of Frank.
Finally, Wesley comes up with a solution of sorts. To save his brother from the humiliation of imprisonment, he locks Frank up in his (Wesley’s) home. That way, he’ll be able to investigate the allegations against Frank. This doesn’t by any means resolve the issue, though, Now, the family is torn apart, and David has to cope with divided loyalties and ugly revelations about his family. As he looks back many years later, we see the impact of what happens as a result of the investigation.
While this isn’t, strictly speaking, billed as a crime story, it certainly has crime as its central focus. And in this case, the crime is against members of the Sioux community. So, one element in the novel is the relationship between the local whites and the Native Americans. Conscience drives Wesley Hayden to investigate, but the culture of the times is very much against him. There’s sometimes blatant racism as people react to what happened. There’s also the very understandable fact that few people at Fort Warren trust a white man (especially the brother of the accused) to get justice. Still, Wesley pursues the case.
Another element in this novel is the impact of the case on the Hayden family. On the surface, the family seemed like ‘the perfect American family.’ But underneath, there’s been denial of what Frank was doing and dysfunction in the way the two sons were treated (Frank’s a war hero; Wesley couldn’t serve because of health issues). So, when this investigation comes up, a very fragile family structure is severely threatened.
The story is told from David’s point of view, so we see the events from two perspectives, really. The young David is confused, torn between people he loves, and just beginning to be aware of his family’s standing in the community and of the realities of prejudice in the area. The adult David sees things, as you’d expect, from a more mature point of view. It doesn’t change what happened (and some of it is ugly), but he’s come to an understanding of his family members and of the events, and of his own helplessness to do much about anything at the time. Watson uses this strategy to reveal the truth about the family that lies just underneath the surface.
The story takes place in small-town Montana, just after World War II, and Watson offers a sense of life in that type of community at that time. People know one another, and depend on one another. This makes it especially difficult for Wesley Hayden. Everyone will know the Hayden family business, and there are people who feel strongly that the doctor’s reputation is a lot more important than the welfare of the local Sioux women.
This isn’t a long story (my edition clocked in at 197 pages). So, it focuses more on that one pivotal year than it does on a long family or local history. Still, Watson offers complex background on the Hayden family as well as on the town of Bentrock.
Montana 1948 tells the story of some terrible crimes, and of the impact they have on a family, and on a community. It also shows the effect of denial, and of the way it can be used to cover up some awful realities. It takes place in a distinct post-war, small-town atmosphere, and features a young boy who’s trying to make sense of it all. But what’s your view? Have you read Montana 1948? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 14 November/Tuesday, 15 November – The Eye of Jade – Diane Wei Liang
Monday, 21 November/Tuesday, 22 November – Rule 34 – Charles Stross
Monday, 28 November/Tuesday, 29 November – The Secret River – Kate Grenville