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Montana 1948 by Larry Watson

June 2, 2012 21 comments

Montana 1948 by Larry Watson. 1993

One of my in-laws loves books set in the Wild West of the USA (Montana, Dakota…) and as she likes when I pick books for her, Montana 1948 caught my attention when I saw it on a display table in a book store. I’d never heard of Larry Watson, to be honest. It is published by Gallmeister, a publisher I’d never seen before either. Three reasons to be intrigued. But back to the book and the first paragraphs of its prologue:

From the summer of my twelfth year I carry a series of images more vivid and lasting than any other 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 of my father’s voice reminds me of those insects—high-pitched, insistent, frantic. It is a sound I have never heard coming from him

My mother stands in our kitchen on a hot, windy day. The windows are open, and Mother’s lace curtains blow in the room. Mother holds my father’s Ithaca twelve-gauge shotgun, and since she is a small, slender woman, she has trouble finding the balance point of its heavy length. Nevertheless, she has watched my father and other men often enough to know where the shells go, and she loads them until the gun will hold no more. Loading the gun is the difficult part. Once the shells are in, any fool can figure out how to fire it. Which she intends to do.

I was hooked right from the start. The narrator David Hayden is now fifty-two and relates the events that changed his life forty years ago.

He’s living with his family in Bentrock, in the county of Mercer, Montana. His father is the sheriff of the county, just like his grand-father before. His uncle Franck is a WWII hero, and now a doctor. David is an only child. As his mother works, a young Sioux woman, Mary, works at their home and watches him when he comes back from school.

The life-changing events start when Mary becomes ill and refuses that David’s mother calls Uncle Franck as a doctor. She reveals to Mrs Hayden that Franck sexually harasses Indian women when they come to his office. Mrs Hayden reports these assaults to her husband, seeing as him a husband and as a sheriff. What will David’s father do? Will he investigate the case, especially since the victims are Indian? Will he look the other way round and let the crime go on? Will he be brave enough to investigate the case, perhaps discover that his brother is guilty and then deal with all the publicity around the affair and with the pain he’ll bring to his parents?

I won’t tell more about the plot. The prologue is a kaleidoscope of images, flashes of memories from that decisive summer. Except for this brief prologue, David tells his story in chronological order, mixing the descriptions of his town and its population and the impression of a twelve-year-old boy who doesn’t understand everything. The images are slowly put into the right order, unravelling the events of that terrible summer.

There is something of Jim Thompson here, in the likeness of everyday life in a small town in Montana the descriptions of small Texan communities. I’ve only read Pop 1280 and The Killer Inside Me but there are common points with Montana 1948: the elite of small towns composed of a doctor, a judge, a sheriff…, the gossip and the way everyone knows everything about everybody, the way the community tends to bend the law to avoid scandals for well-known members of the community. People live by the law and by a set of unspoken local rules. Sometimes the local rules go against the law but the local rule tends to prevail. And in Montana 1948, the Whites live close to Indian Reservations; racism is in the background just as it is toward the Black in Thompson’s Texas. And of course, the theme is close to Thompson’s world: sex, violence, abuse, secrets and a local sheriff more used to dealing with missing dogs than with big stuff.

For twelve year old David, the tragic events of summer 1948 are the milestone of his first journey into the muddy world of adults. He catches the whole story by chance and by spying on the adults. Sex is in the centre of the drama and it’s a mysterious territory for our narrator. Now that he’s older, he tries to analyse his reactions and to assess the situation with the eyes of a mature man.

Followers of this blog might recall A Lost Soul by Giovanni Arpino and might wonder if these two books have something in common. Yes they have as they both describe family secrets and family interactions. They also both describe an adolescent thrown into the arena of adulthood without preparation and through tragic events. They differ in their literary form though. Arpino’s narrator is a teenager who writes a journal, the events are told on the spot whereas Watson’s narrator is older and looks back at his past. As a consequence, the emotion is raw in the Arpino when it is more polished by a remembrance process in the Watson. Both techniques were efficient, though.

I just gave two great godfathers to this little gem of a book. Good for me that my in-law loves Montana related books!

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