In Montana 1948, 52-year-old David Hayden is looking back 40 years to a series of incidents that took place during the summer of his twelfth year. His father, Wesley, is the sheriff of Bentrock in northeast Montana, as was his father before him. David’s Uncle Frank is the town doctor — he’s also a war hero, revered in the community in a way that the prominent Hayden family has come to believe is its due over the generations. David’s family’s maid, a Sioux named Marie, takes sick and Dr. Frank is called in — Marie reacts by going into a panicked withdrawal and refuses to see him. That sets in a motion a process of discovery for Sheriff Wesley that eventually tears apart the bonds that have held the Haydens together.
The seven “chapters” in Justice all involve various Haydens and friends and all take place in Bentrock prior to the 1948 of Watson’s earlier novel — the earliest (1899) tells the story of the arrival of Julian Hayden in the Montana frontier in 1899, the most recent (1937) features the marriage of Sheriff Wesley and the birth of David, who 52 years later will narrate Montana 1948.
Readers who come to Justice with no knowledge of Montana, 1948 are likely to read it as a collection of linked short stories that cumulatively pull together the story of a frontier family. Those who have read that novel probably will see it most conveniently as a prequel that offers some sketches of background to the Haydens and other characters who form the cast of the earlier book.
I am inclined to a somewhat different interpretation, one that I think Watson hints at in his prologue to Montana 1948:
The events that produced these 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.
One of the novel’s great strengths is that the author does not waste a single word, let alone scene, in its 169 pages. In his mind, Watson obviously had a wealth of well-developed scenes from the history of the Hayden family — but chose to restrict himself to memories of those that occurred in the summer of 1948. Justice is a collection of scenes from previous years that were important to the author in mentally imagining the family but, in the final analysis, not essential to that story. Referring to them as “rejected scenes” seems unnecessarily harsh; the journalist in me much prefers that old standby of “useful deep background”.
Consider the first chapter of Justice, titled “Outside the Jurisdiction” and set in 1924 — what follows has spoilers for that chapter, but I will leave the other six alone. Wesley and his older brother Frank (in his senior high school year and due to attend the University of Minnesota) are headed to North Dakota (out of the jurisdiction of their sheriff father, hence the title) for their annual winter hunting trip:
The plan had been to leave their home in northeast Montana, cross over into North Dakota, and head south. Eventually they would set up camp on the banks of the Little Missouri and from there hunt the red rocky bluffs, the dark wooded draws, and the sagebrush flats of the Dakota Badlands. They had hunted that region for years, and just last year they returned with four deer and over fifty pheasant and partridge. Lester [a friend who is also along on this year’s trip] had even shot a coyote. Of course last year the weather had been much different — three days of sunshine and uncommonly warm temperatures.
Unfortunately, for Wesley, this year’s trip has much less promise, and not just because it is starting out in a major Prairie snowstorm. Frank and the travelling companions, Lester and the no-good Tommy, are three years older than Wesley so he feels very much the child of the group. Tommy has brought along three bottles of bootleg whiskey and, it turns out, a pistol — degenerate “urban” misbehavior rather than healthy badlands hunting seems to be this year’s agenda.
That proves to be the case early on when the four get into trouble as Frank and Tom start flirting with two native girls in the cafe in McCoy where the four stop to get out of the storm. The flirting turns dangerous when Tommy responds to rejection by pulling out his pistol — one of the girls falls (or is tripped by Tom) on her way hustling out of the cafe and splits her lip seriously.
Bad soon turns to much worse when Sheriff Cooke shows up at the McCoy Hotel where the boys have taken a room and started to sample the hootch. He takes them down to the local jail and lets them sit isolated in the cell (there is only one) for a while, before revealing that the father of the girl who fell in the cafe is Iron Hail, a local Sioux hero. The anxiety increases before Cooke and his deputy escort the four out into the snowy alley, clear a patch behind the local liquor store and tell Tommy to drop his drawers:
“All right,” the sheriff said to Tom, as if someone had finally come up with the right answer. “You came to town looking to stick your pecker somewhere, you can stick it in that snowbank.”
[Tommy balks for a few paragraphs, amid threats from the sheriff.]
“Shit!” Tommy said, and more than leap toward the snow, he simply let himself lean and fall forward into it. He kept his arms folded in front of him; the instant his body hit he let out a shout that was half-laugh, half-cry.
Sheriff Cooke commanded, “You get up when I tell you.” and at the same time the deputy with the rifle moved over and pinned Tommy down by putting his foot on his back.
“All right, Clarence,” the sheriff said.
The man with the shovel braced his feet, brought his shovel back like a baseball bat, and swung. The flat back of the shovel’s blade hit Tommy square on the ass, and in the cold air the metal rang like a bell, as if the shovel had met not flesh but iron. Tommy yelped like a dog, as much in surprise as in pain.
Clarence delivered four more blows, and with each one Wesley could see Tommy’s body arch and spasm with the indecision of whether to press further into the snow or to rise up and meet the shovel.
Lester is subjected to a similar treatment — Wesley realizes that the two have just been “spanked”, albeit with their peckers in a snowbank and a metal shovel as the disciplinary tool of choice. When he and Frank are spared the punishment, the truth begins to dawn: they may be “outside the jurisdiction” but they aren’t outside the influence of their father. Sheriff Cooke consulted Sheriff Hayden when he heard of the incident at the cafe — the two came up with the “life-learning” experience of the outdoor spanking.
At 68 pages, that story is close to half the length of Montana 1948 — as good as it is (and it is very good) it would have been more than just another scene in the novel, it would have been a serious, unuseful, distraction. Most of the other chapters in Justice are much shorter but fit that same criteria. All are self-contained “scenes” and quite successful as stories, but they would have added nothing to the novel. That said, it would have been a loss if they were discarded: I for one am very glad that Watson held on to them and produced this separate collection.
That for me was the most interesting aspect of reading Justice: seeing how complete and well-developed an author’s thoughts were in producing a cast of characters, but also illustrating his wisdom in realizing that some just weren’t necessary — indeed would be a barrier — for the success of the novel. That is the kind of discipline that all too few novelists possess.
I love Larry Watson’s writing and very much appreciated this book. But if you haven’t read Montana 1948, head to that novel first; if you have, track down a copy of Justice because it adds another dimension to what is in itself an excellent novel.