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.