White Crosses, by Larry Watson

Purchased at Indigo.ca

Anyone who has driven the rural highways of Prairie Canada or the United States has experienced the phenomenon: the white crosses, often with a bunch of very weathered plastic flowers tied to them, by the side of the road to mark and commemorate the site of a fatal accident. They supply the title for Larry Watson’s novel and come to Bentrock, Montana Sheriff Jack Nevelsen’s mind as he is heading out of town to a fatal accident in response to a call from his deputy:

Whenever a fatality occurred in a highway accident, a white cross was planted at the site, one cross for each death. Cautioning other travelers was the idea, to tell them that someone had died here, because of speed or carelessness or hazardous road conditions or simply bad luck. No doubt it made sense and had an effect — you approached that railroad crossing and saw five crosses bristling up from the weeds alongside the tracks and perhaps you looked carefully before proceeding. But were those five crosses from five separate accidents, indicating that here was a crossing where trains came out of nowhere, or were all the crosses from only one accident, from the night five teenagers heard the Empire Builder’s whistle and saw its light but still thought they could beat it to the crossing? What if you drove a highway only once, and by the time you noticed that single cross in the ditch you were already past it — what lesson could you take from that? Jack had seen bouquets of those crosses in places so dangerous they made you nod your head and say silently, yes, no question but that a heedless driver could meet his death here. But he had also seen crosses in places that brought nothing but puzzlement, that left you scratching your head and wondering what the hell a driver must have done to get himself killed along this ribbon-straight stretch of road.

Now two more crosses were going to be stuck in the soil of Mercer County.

(Digression: When I include quotes in reviews here, I hope that they offer visitors a capsule indication of what to expect from the author’s style and that very long one above is certainly meant to do that. One of Larry Watson’s distinctive characteristics is the tangential paragraph that delves into some detail what lies behind a seemingly mundane observation, like white crosses at the side of a rural road. Some readers may find it distracting — for this one, it adds a richness and depth that I very much appreciate.)

Sheriff Jack’s thoughts on the white crosses are a deliberate distraction for him because he wants to avoid thinking about the fatal accident before he gets there. It is graduation night in Bentrock, which means parties and drinking for the students — those who drink regularly, drink even more on grad night; those who don’t, often choose that night to start. The northeast Montana prairie town has been lucky so far, with no grad night fatalities, but that clean record seems to have come to a close.

When Jack arrives at the scene of the double fatality, he is not surprised. It is a dangerous 90-degree bend: “If you missed the curve, you were off the road in an instant and sailing toward a slough”. He knows the accident will mean doing something that he hates in his job, delivering the news to next of kin and that sparks memories of various previous bad experiences doing just that.

Matters quickly get worse for Jack, however. While the bodies have already been removed, his deputy supplies the news that will form the backbone for the remainder of White Crosses. Yes, one of the students was a graduand, Junie Moss. The other, the driver, was Leo Bauer:

Leo Bauer — a man who reminded Jack of himself in certain ways. Leo was about Jack’s age, tall, soft-spoken, a veteran. Leo had thinning hair combed straight back over his large head. A serious man. Jack had pictured him in the clothes he always wore — black Wellingtons, dress slacks, a short-sleeved white shirt, and a narrow dark tie. This was Leo’s uniform. He was the principal of Horace Mann School in Bentrock, grades one through eight, but even off the job — at a barbecue or at a town council meeting or at a high school basketball game — he was likely to be dressed the same way, perhaps without the tie. Oh, yes, Jack could see Leo Bauer clearly. And he could see Leo’s wife and son.

It takes the stumbling deputy a while to get to it, but he eventually informs Jack that there were three suitcases in the car: two of Junie’s and one with Leo’s clothes, although the name tag on the bag was that of Leo’s own graduating son, Richard. Still, the obvious conclusion has to be that the tight-laced elementary school principal was running off with a high school grad.

Jack arrives at another conclusion almost immediately: Bentrock cannot accept this scandal. In a review of Edith Wharton’s Sanctuary which I posted just a week ago, I highlighted a quote that included this observation: “…the fair surface of life was honeycombed by a vast system of moral sewage. Every respectable household had its special arrangements for the private disposal of family scandals….” Wharton used that to explain the way that high society New York preserved some of its dirty secrets. The rural Montana of Larry Watson shares exactly the same approach to keeping disturbing events discreetly buried — and Sheriff Jack decides it needs to be applied to deal with this dreadful accident.

So he creates another version of the story — the tangled web of deceit is put fully in place early in the novel and I am not spoiling it for any potential reader with what I have said so far. The bulk of the book concerns how the seemingly compact web of lies turns into a cat’s cradle where a pull on the string off to one side affects the whole structure. And at the middle of that complex web of lies — the only one who knows the real story — is Jack Nevelsen.

Regular visitors here will no recall how impressed I was with my first Larry Watson novel, Montana 1948, a few months back — it gives nothing away to say you will be reading about that novel again when I post my list of 10 best books for 2011 in a few days. That novel also is centred on the way that Bentrock goes about preserving secrets and also involves a sheriff. The “honeycomb of moral sewage” in the small town Prairie west is of every bit as much interest to Larry Watson as New York City’s is to Edith Wharton. And both of them are excellent at exploring their fascination with the power of the phenomenon.

Is White Crosses as good as Montana 1948? For this reader, no it’s not, but don’t let that dissuade you from reading this novel — the latter ranks close to 10 out of 10, this one rates more like 8.5 or 9, which still makes it excellent in my eyes. Montana 1948 (published in 1993) has a powerful spareness in its 169 pages that brings a sharpness to Watson’s portrayal of smalltown life that I have found in very few books. White Crosses was published five years later and its 371 pages have many more of the kinds of thoughtful musings that are illlustrated in the first paragraph that I quoted — they certainly add value, but they dull some of the razor-like perceptions that are Watson’s greatest strength. However you rate the two that I have read, I can only conclude that Larry Watson deserves to be mentioned with the best of the authors who portray the North American West.

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28 Responses to “White Crosses, by Larry Watson”

  1. leroyhunter Says:

    Montana 1948 is one of those priorities for 2012 I mentioned, Kevin, but this sounds interesting as well.

    That’s quite a change of scale – 169 pages to 371. You might worry about authorial indulgence given such a discrepancy, but that doesn’t seem to be an issue based on your experience with this one.

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Leroy: I could have gone on at some length trying to explain why, despite some very obvious similarities, Watson seems to me to have very different aims with the two books. Unfortunately, that would have made the review meaningless to anyone who hadn’t read both books. Montana 1948 is about raw evil, viewed 40 years on through the eyes of someone who was 12 at the time of the action. White Crosses has a lot more nuance to it, not just in the author’s tangential observations but in the way that most of the conflict actually occurs inside Jack’s head — he acts unilaterally in deciding to do what he does, but he also is the one who ends up paying the price for that.

  3. dovegreyreader Says:

    Kevin, I absolutely love the sound of this! And I mean from your words but also the ‘sound’ of Larry Watson’s words. Your excerpts reveal something very immediate about his writing, perhaps immediate too in that I have to find the book this minute! Fascinating take on road side shrines, yes seeing them as a warning but also coming across them and wondering what may have happened on a seemingly ordinary stretch of road. I shall look forward to discovering Larry Watson so thank you

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    DGR: I agree with you about the “sound” in Watson’s prose — the novel for the most part, but not totally, has an introspective voice inside Jack’s head that combines both melancholy and fear. He also uses foreshadowing in much the same way a composer does — we know that a plot “development” is coming, but the author often offers a couple of chords that sketch what it will look and feel like when it does arrive. Not sure about the UK availability of this one but I’m certain you can find it somewhwere.

  5. Guy Savage Says:

    Kevin: this one sounds like my sort of read. I passed one of those shrines the other day–5 names-a chilling sight especially since there was a slight rain and the flowers and teddy bears around the tree were sodden. Anyway on the list it goes! Thanks

    • dovegreyreader Says:

      I think roadside shrines are a fascinating development in the cultural expression of grief, a newer ritual that perhaps suggests it’s now OK to express grief in public after being so buttoned up about it all thanks to two world wars, well certainly here in the UK. It doesn’t have to be hidden away now, but there are really opposing thoughts on it all…some people see it as vulgar, others as a way of announcing sorrow to a community, as would have happened years ago with rituals that have gone. Sorry for taking your review off on a tangent Kevin, but it has certainly made me ponder.

      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        The discussion is not off tangent at all — I’d say it is central to the theme of the book. The motivation to put up those crosses (I didn’t have room to quote it but as he is heading to the accident Sheriff Jack also spends some time wondering just who it is exactly who erects the crosses) comes from the same sense of “community good” that Jack thinks he is meeting when he concocts his version of the accident.

        • dovegreyreader Says:

          Oh good! It is being seen here as a ‘bottom-up, anti-establishement culture that has developed a code and culture of its own’ to quote Geraldine Excell and there is much debate over false sentimentality manipulating emotions and with real implications about who society sees as the ‘sacred dead deserving of public reverence’ . Basically perhaps the road side shrine indicates that every life is worthy of that which is an idea I would subscribe to. It sounds as if Jack weaves himself a very tangled web, I shall look forward to reading this.

  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Guy: The passage about the crosses that I quoted occurs in the first few pages of the book and I’ll admit he had me hooked right then. We’ve all noticed and wondered about these memorials (in my part of the world, especially the rural ones) and, in many ways, this novel is a “back story” about what might lie behind them. Add to that Watson’s obvious proficency as a writer and you have a very good book.

  7. Guy Savage Says:

    Well, I ordered a copy. This appeals more than Montana 1948.

    Some years back, I lived next door to a house in which a murder took place. It was a gang-related shooting and the shooter barged into a party that was in full swing. He entered the crowded room and started firing. He hit the wrong person–well several wrong persons–one of whom ended up dead.

    I had been aware of the party, of course. You couldn’t miss the noise and the cars. And I heard the shots. People ran outside screaming and crying. Several leaped over the wall to my house. Sirens, ambulances etc. Well you get the picture. Then after a few hours… silence.

    I went to work the next day, and as I drove out, I noticed that the house was cordoned off by yellow crime scene ribbon. The driveway was covered with balloons, flowers, toys etc. They’d all been delivered during the night and I hadn’t heard anything from these silent mourners.

  8. Sam Attar Says:

    I just put an order, too! Sounds like a great read.

    BTW, Kevin, I recently read this collection of short stories which I liked very much: Echoes from the Other Land by Ava Homa. Very taut and subtle, psychologically complex, in many ways different! I like to know what you think about it. I think it was nominated for Frank O’Conner Prize 2011.
    Cheers,

  9. Liz Says:

    Kevin, I am looking forward to your Best of 2011 list! You haven’t steered me wrong yet. Thanks for some great reviews.

  10. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Sam: Thanks for the comment — Watson also writes short stories and I do have his collection Justice on hand. I will check out the Homa but have to admit that the current stack of story collections is already daunting. I like the genre but one collection a month is pretty much my limit. If I try to read more than that, the stories all seem to flow into one stream.

  11. gaskella Says:

    Gosh – I remember reading this some years ago during a period when I was fairly obsessed by novels set in ‘small town USA’. Sadly I can’t remember much about it. Your review has triggered a yen to re-read if I still have the book but after a quick look on my shelves I do have Montana 1948 waiting for me – again bought years ago, but it sounds like I have a treat waiting for me.

  12. kimbofo Says:

    The road accident on graduation night seems a bit cliched to me… so not sure this is a book I’d enjoy, although I’ve taken note of your high recommendation of his work —esp Montana — so am willing to give him a go.

    As an aside, those white crosses are a feature of Australian culture, too, where the death toll resulting from road traffic accidents gets regular media exposure. And in Ireland I’ve seen actual headstones put up on the roadside — presumably the bodies have been given a proper burial elsewhere, or I hope they have.

    There’s now a new movement, mainly in the US but creeping in to the UK, in which white bicycles — or “ghost bikes” — are left at the scene of a traffic accident in which there has been a cyclist fatality. I find them a fitting and haunting reminder that life on a bicycle can sometimes be deadly. See here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ghost_bike

  13. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Ah, but running away with the elementary school principal? That’s a spin you haven’t seen before.

    As for the white crosses themselves (I’d say every country with automobiles has a version), they actually don’t feature at all after the excerpt that I quoted. Having said that, their importance to the book comes in the sense of “this is the way we do things around here”. Sheriff Jack proceeds to apply the same flawed logic in coping with the fallout from the accident — and ends up paying a major price.

  14. Max Cairnduff Says:

    It sounds very good, but perhaps the additional length leads to diminished impact than in Montana 1948.

    I need to try that again. I downloaded a sample of 1948 onto my kindle and wasn’t blown away, but I do note both your and Trevor’s praise for it and the language in the quotes here is excellent. Spare and wintry.

  15. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: Montana 1948 does have a compactness throughout that is part of its strength, because one its themes is the incompleteness of memory. Watson is dealing with a different kind of small-town “secret” in this one (the idea of community “good” that excuses lies) which helps explain the additional length.

    I don’t think excerpts would serve Watson very well — he doesn’t do the kind of set pieces that are convenient for excerpt length. I’d describe his prose as highly functional in that it serves the needs of the book, but isn’t really a reason in itself for reading him. A big part of his appeal for me is the “high realism” that he produces (I’m borrowing that more from art than in the literary sense) and the consistency of voice and message that characterizes his books.

  16. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Clearly I shall have to do as I did with Maile Meloy, and take a leap of faith based on those making the recommendation. The leap was amply rewarded there. Montana 1948 making your end of year (I’ve yet to read your end of year post properly) certainly holds weight with me.

    The premise of this one, a lie to protect the town, is very interesting. More so than 1948 actually, but premise isn’t everything.

  17. dovegreyreader Says:

    Kevin I wanted to stop by and wish you and Sheila a Merry Christmas but also to thank you for the White Crosses recommend. My 1p copy has arrived and has me hooked. A really excellent read and I am loving the way that the consequences of Jack’s decision are slowly unfolding for me as a reader. I hadn’t thought through his decision either and this clever writing somehow drops in the pitfalls very slowly but very surely. I should be sorting the house before the family descend, not reading this book!

  18. KevinfromCanada Says:

    DGR: And best wishes for a Happy Christmas and wonderful New Year to you and your family from Mrs. KfC and myself. Mrs. KfC will be picking up the bird this morning and I look forward to a day of smelling the roasting bird tomorrow (that always seems to leave as much joy as actually eating it).

    Glad to hear that you are enjoying White Crosses, even if it is distracting from holiday tasks. The deliberateness of Watson’s reveals in the plot is one of his traits — he uses a version of the device in Montana 1948 as well. I did order a few more from his back catalogue last week (Laura, Orchard and his new one) so I am sure 2012 will feature at least one more Watson for me.

  19. David Says:

    Kevin, I just wanted to thank-you for introducing me via your reviews to the work of Larry Watson. I finished ‘American Boy’ a couple of hours ago having loved every minute of it. The cover makes it look like this is going to be pure 50s/60s nostalgia and I’ll admit that for the first chapter or two I thought this was going to be borne out, but then the novel really hit its stride and became something much more complex and unpredictable. ‘Montana 1948′ is now a must-read.

    Merry Christmas to you and yours.

  20. KevinfromCanada Says:

    David: Thank you. As you will have probably noted from a previous comment, I did add American Boy to an order last week which means that when it arrives (along with Laura and Orchard) my resolve to read Watson in chronological order will be tested. From the positive responses of people who have been moved to try him and commented here, I think we have found that rarity: an overlooked American author. Trevor at the Mookse and the Gripes deserves the credit for finding him — if it wasn’t for his review of Montana 1948, I would have never known about Watson.

    From the two that I have read, I’d agree with your comment about 50s/60s nostalgia being a going-in concern with Watson (note Kimbofo’s comment about the apparent cliche of the white crosses). From my experience (and it seems you found the same thing with your American Boy experience) the author uses both that era and his physical setting to create a heightened focus for his novels. Particularly in the West of America, where the Great Depression was followed (perhaps “only escaped” would be a more accurate verb) by the painful experience of the War, that era represented a very hopeful and newly prosperous period in the U.S. (unlike the pains of recovering that characterized it in the U.K. and Europe). The two that I have read emphasize that there was a down-side to that apparent new era as well — one that often got overlooked.

    Merry Christmas to you as well. The bird is about to go into the oven as I write this — the delightful smell that is Christmas afternoon for me should be apparent in an hour or so.

  21. Mary Gilbert Says:

    I’ve just finished reading this which took me only two days as I was completely absorbed from the first page. My first Larry Watson and I look forward to his others. Having grown up in the provinces I love novels that offer the flavour and rythmn and even boredom of small town life. I wasn’t sure which way this novel was going or even what genre it belonged to. The familiarity was constantly undermined by unexpected digressions and was all the richer for this. Thanks Kevin for introducing me to Watson. I’ve just ordered more on Amazon ( and good prices too!).

  22. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Mary: I like your point about the way Watson mixes the familiar with the unexpected — he does that consistently in the ones that I have read to show there is more depth to the community and people whom he is writing about than there might seem to be at first glance.

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