Montana 1948, by Larry Watson

Purchased at Chapters.ca

This post is several days late — for a very good reason. Montana 1948 is only 169 pages but I was fully aware after reading just a few that it is a very special novel, one that was not to be rushed, but rather set aside frequently to allow time for contemplation. That doesn’t happen to me often — I’m normally a quick reader, opting for a second read of outstanding books that I feel I have not done justice to on the first, too quick read-through. With Larry Watson’s novel, not only did I take several days for the first read, I immediately went back to the start when I did finish it — and spread that second experience out over several days as well.

“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.

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28 Responses to “Montana 1948, by Larry Watson”

  1. John Self Says:

    Kevin, I was wondering where you were as it’s been almost two weeks since your last post – and I am glad there was good reason for the delay, and I look forward to discovering this exquisite text myself.

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I always mean to keep a post on hand so that when I want to spend time with a book (which does happen, obviously) the blog doesn’t suffer. Of course, every time I draft one I am so delighted with it that I promptly post it. So I apologize for the silence and promise to get back to regular reviews. :-)

  3. Trevor Says:

    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.

    This has been my concern, too. I haven’t tried anything else Watson has written simply because my experience with this book was so good I think anything else might disappoint. I know it’s silly when I say it out loud, but it is how I feel. That said, if it weren’t for the piles of unread books already in hand, I’m sure I would have given into the temptation and plan to some day.

    Very glad you enjoyed this one so much. It got my heart racing at times, and it’s not often a book dries out my throat. Probably even less often that I consider such an experience beautiful.

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    It is a hard book to discuss without spoiling, particularly since Watson is good at building tension as the book progresses. That is probably the biggest reason that I wanted to spread it out over some time. Each time David or his parents got into one of the dilemmas I wanted to share the experience.

  5. Kerry Says:

    I was aware of this book, having browsed Milkweed’s catalog several times. Trevor convinced me I needed to read it, you have convinced me it needs to be sooner rather than later.

    The book I did finally choose from the catalog (also a Milkweed Prize Winner) was excellent (Orion You Came and You Took All My Marbles) which suggests I need to be reading more of these relatively obscure Milkweed Prize winners.

    Great to see you back, Kevin. Thanks, as so frequently, for adding to the TBR!

  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kerry: I did not know about Milkweed and there is a list of titles (although not the one you mention) at the back of my copy of this novel. I was planning on looking into them since a number seem to be “Western” titles of the sort that interest me (Hell’s Bottom, Colorado positively cries out for more investigation).

    • Kerry Says:

      I have only read one (and heard much about this one). Based on this small sample size, it seems their selection committee and my tastes likely mesh well. I will read at least one of their titles this year (Montana 1948) and, if things fall into place, at least one more (hopefully, this year’s Milkweed Prize Winner, whatever that is/will be. (Haven’t checked if it has been announced because I am not yet ready to buy anything.)

      I will be looking forward to your take on Hell’s Bottom, Colorado, whenever you get the time to get to it.

  7. Guy Savage Says:

    This one must have left you stunned.

    BTW, halfwway through Alligators and enjoying it so far.

  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Guy: It did, one of those rare books that worked completely from page one. I should probably also admit that it fit my mood perfectly, which did influence my response.

  9. Guy Savage Says:

    Always a great feeling when we hit one of ‘those’ books.

  10. Graham Says:

    Sounds like one to go on the list

  11. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Guy, Graham: It is worth noting that if you don’t get entranced with the idea of an extended read, as I did, this is a perfect one-sitting novel.

  12. leroyhunter Says:

    The only reason I haven’t bought this already (after Trevor’s review) is that I want to read Butcher’s Crossing (which I have on the shelf) first. Sounds superb.

  13. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Leroy: The two do bear some comparison, although only on a few points. I think I found even more with the early parts of Stoner. Williams and Watson do have similar prose styles.

  14. Tom C Says:

    Very good review as always. For some unknown reason “western” fiction does not appeal to me all that much – but then I good writing like this would probably over-ride my prejudices about the genre.

  15. Mary Gilbert Says:

    This book was on my radar a while ago and then I lost my scrap of paper…..Thanks for reminding me of it and for writing such a compelling review. Perhaps it’s because I live amongst small green woods and fields that I just love the sweeping novels of the great Wild West. In the last couple of years I’ve read and loved Stegner’s Big Rock Candy Mountain and the Angle of Repose, Vanderhaeghe’s The Last Crossing and John William’s Butcher’s Crossing. Then I came across a novel by Ivan Doig The Sea Runners about an escape from Alaska down the West coast set in the nineteenth century which then led me to read two books set in that area – Jonathan Raban’s wonderful account of a sailing trip from Seattle to Alaska, Passage to Juneau and a very intriguing and unsettling novel set amongst summer visitors on Vancouver island called The Cottagers by Marshall Klimasewiski. My reading habits frequently take this meandering path where a theme or fancy will lead me from one book to another which is why my responses to current fiction often come a year or two late. I’d be interested to hear how you pattern and prioritise your reading.

  16. Max Cairnduff Says:

    This was already on my radar due to Trevor’s praise for it. Interesting to see your reaction is equally strong. It would be a shame for Watson though if his achievement here put readers off trying his other books. They may all be this good. It’s even possible that excellent as it clearly is this is one of his weaker books, the others could be even better.

    Occasionally writers knock it out of the park with only one of their books, but not often. Usually if there’s one great book, there’s at least one other.

  17. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Mary: All four of those Western novels that you mention came to mind while I was reading this one — so I don’t think you will be disappointed when you get to it.

    Your West Coast reading journey is interesting. While I have certainly read coastal fiction, most of it has been Canadian and I don’t know any of the books that you mention. I’ll be looking into The Cottagers in particular.

    Your question about “pattern and prioritise” requires some thought — I promise to address it in a review sometime in the future. For now, I would have to say that whatever produces my reading pattern does lie deep enough in my subconscious that it does not immediately come to mind, although I am sure that there is something there.

    (Incidentally, Vanderhaeghe has a new novel coming out this fall — A Good Man — that is supposedly the third book in his loose trilogy with The Englishman’s Boy and The Last Crossing. I can’t wait.)

  18. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: Your point is well taken. While I shouldn’t speak for Trevor, I think both of us are expressing more “hope” than “fear” in choosing to delay further explorations of Watson. Much like Stegner (while I love him I still haven’t finished his work — I read one every two years or so), I think it is case that I like to let some very good novels sit for an extended period before moving on to the next one from the author.

  19. margaret Says:

    Watson captured my attention from the first few pages. The plot is clear, concise and yet not spilled too quickly. I look forward to reading another of his novels, sooner rather than later. Thanks KfC, for bringing Montana 1948 to our attention.

  20. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Margaret: You are most welcome. I agree — Watson captures the reader’s attention early and then, very, very carefully, unfolds his story in a deliberate fashion that builds both interest and tension in a dramatic fashion.

  21. Lynda Says:

    I took your advice and read this truly outstanding novel, and then I read it again! And I will read it again. I couldn’t quite believe the quality of what I was reading. The characters and the story often keep coming back to my thoughts. It IS an exquisite novel.

  22. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Lynda: Thank you — I am glad that I did not lead you astray. I ordered two more Watson books today — White Crosses andJustice — both also set in Bentrock. I want them on hand for when I do decide to try another of his works.

  23. Chad Hull Says:

    I’m sold. Nothing to lose in only 169 pages…

  24. Claudia Says:

    Hello Kevin, thank you for making me aware of this superb novel! It is the last one I will finish this year – and it is the best as well. Watson’s prose style is so sparse but also very telling in impressing. I certainly will read more from this author. I bought “Justice” for the Kindle already. Thank you for your entertaining blog and all the best wishes for a healthy and happy year 2012 – with lots of good books :))

  25. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Claudia: You are most welcome — if someone made me choose from my top 10, this would be my favorite of 2011 as well (most days, anyway — some days it might be another). I have the Justice short story collection on hand and intend to spread them out a bit — so I suspect I will get to Laura or Orchard first. Whatever…Watson is certainly on my 2012 reading list as well. Best New Year’s wishes to you as well.

  26. leroyhunter Says:

    Thanks to both you & Trevor for this recommedation, you certainly didn’t steer me wrong. Very compact, impressive novel. I particularly liked how the narrator conveyed, but kept separate, the reality of the world of 1948 versus his feelings about that world looking back.

    I’ll definitely look out for more Watson.

  27. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Leroy: Trevor deserves all the credit — he was the one who introduced me to Larry Watson (although I will take credit for introducing him to John Williams). And your comment is a very timely reminder that I have been postponing reading Justice — I’ll get to it before year end for sure.

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