“Exquisite” is an adjective that you see fairly often in reviews of shortish novels, but not one that I have ever used. Until now. Montana 1948 is “exquisite” in every sense of the word. Larry Watson’s book was published in 1993 but I had never heard of it until it made Trevor Berrett’s Top Ten list last year. Trevor was raised in Idaho, I live in Alberta and we share an interest in Western fiction — the Montana of this book (it is the hardscrabble prairie in the northeast corner of the state, not the famous mountains) would be midway between us, albeit a little further east.
David Hayden, the narrator of the book, is 52 years old at the time of writing but he alerts us in a prologue that he has waited 40 years to recall the summer of 1948.
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….
A young Sioux woman lies on a bed in our house. She is feverish, delirious, and coughing so hard I am afraid she will die.
My father kneels on the kitchen floor, begging my mother to help him. It’s a summer night and the room is brightly lit. Insects cluster around the light fixtures, and the pleading quality in my father’s voice reminds me of those insects — high-pitched, insistent, frantic. It is a sound I have never heard coming from him.
There are other images in the Prologue: “The events that produced those sights and sounds are so rapid and tumbled together that any chronological sequences seem wrong. Imagine instead a movie screen divided into boxes and panels, each with its own scene, so that one moment can occur simultaneously with another, so no action has to fly off in time, so nothing happens before or after, only during.”
Having alerted the reader to the confused pastiche of his memory — and introduced a few blurry images that promise ominous events — the narrator proceeds to apply a very deliberate approach to his project. The first third of the book is devoted to capturing what life was like in Bentrock, Mercer County, Montana where his father is in his second term as sheriff (having succeeded his own father — the Haydens represent both wealth and power in this desolate corner of the world).
And 1948 still felt like a new, blessedly peaceful era. The exuberance of the war’s end had faded but the relief had not. The mundane, workaday world was a gift that had not outworn its shine. Many of the men in Mercer Country had spent the preceding years in combat. (But not my father; he was 4-F. When he was sixteen a horse kicked him, breaking his leg so severely that he walked with a permanent limp, and eventually a cane, his right leg V-ed in, his right knee perpetually pointing to the left.) When these men came back from war they wanted nothing more than to work their farms and ranches and to live quietly with their families. The county had fewer hunters after the war than before.
All of which made my father’s job a relatively easy one.
Like most Prairie towns, Bentrock has a Native American community — and there is a level of accepted racism that delegates them as second-class. David’s family employs one, Marie Little Soldier, as a housekeeper — he loves Marie and her athletic boyfried as much as he does his own parents. The storm clouds of the novel start forming when Marie catches a cold that is threatening to turn into pneumonia — and she absolutely refuses to allow the town doctor (David’s Uncle Frank) to see her.
Unlike David’s 4-F father, Uncle Frank is a war hero and we are introduced to some of the tensions in the Hayden family at a homecoming picnic for the vets where Grandfather Hayden has the stage in his role as Bentrock’s outstanding citizen:
He said a few words honoring all the men who served (no one from Mercer County was killed in action — not such an improbability when you consider the county’s small population — though we had our share of wounded, the worst of whom, Harold Branch, came back without his legs). Then after a long, reverent pause, Grandfather announced, “Now I’d like to bring my son up here.”
My father was standing next to me when Grandfather said that. My father did not move. Grandfather did not say “my son the veteran,” or “my son the war hero,” or “my son the soldier.” He simply said, “my son.” And why wouldn’t the country sheriff be called on to make a small speech?
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.
I have included some longish quotes here to indicate the pace and discipline that Watson shows in his narrative style. He painstakingly establishes the elements of his story — family conflict, uncertain memory, overt racism, hints about justice versus convenience — before setting them in motion. All of it viewed with the benefit of 40 years of life lived by the narrator.
We know from the prologue that trauma will occur and it does; that David’s extended family will be split and they are; and that for a 12-year-old too many things are going to happen too quickly for him to comprehend. Watson uses that incompleteness and confusion to good effect — that’s one of the reasons why I wanted to take just about as much time reading the book as 12-year-old David did when he experienced the events back in 1948.
The result was that I ended up “living” this book as much as I did “reading” it. And that was just on the first time through. I do have my favorite Western writers (Guy Vanderhaeghe, Wallace Stegner, John Williams, to name a few) and Larry Watson’s name is now added to that list. My only concern is that Montana 1948 is so good that his others just can’t compare — I may wait a few months before I put that to the test. In the meantime, do read this “exquisite” novel for yourself.