Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Montana 1948 by Larry Watson

I needed something short, after months of reading these doorstopper books. Montana 1948 fit the bill, lengthwise. It tells the story of one seminal event in the life of a young man, and the ways in which that event changed him and his worldview forever. It also evokes a vanished world of 60 years ago: small town life in the western U.S. At the center of the story is the affluent Hayden family: Julian (a rancher and retired sheriff), and his two sons, current sheriff Wesley and the war hero and town doctor Frank, and their wives and children.

The first person narrator, David Hayden (son of the sheriff), is 12 years old at the time of the events he describes, but the book is written from the point of view of an adult David, who looks back on the events from many years later. So the author gives us two vantage points simultaneously. Sometimes I wasn’t sure if I liked this approach; the elder David provides a fair amount of post hoc interpretation that I found unnecessary, and which dilutes a little of the story’s power. I kept wanting to say “yes, I know that your father’s reaction here shocked you, I can tell, you don’t need to tell me it shocked you.” On the other hand, reading the words is kind of like being inside David’s head, and sometimes his interpretations are not what you expect.

What are the events that bring on such a seismic shift? A Sioux Indian woman who works for David’s family accuses Frank Hayden of sexually assaulting his female patients. Frank’s brother Wesley, as the sole law enforcement officer, must investigate this charge against his brother. The story rapidly unfolds into a firestorm of racism, sexism, violence, sibling rivalry, family bullying, and possibly murder. David listens at doors and from under porches, his innocence and childhood adoration of his uncle the war hero shattering before our eyes. It’s very powerful. And at 168 pages, the perfect length.

(Book 27, 2011)


Anonymous said...

Sounds like an excellent book about the "real" America. It reminds me of a book I read and really liked Last Night in Twisted River by John Irving (my thoughts: http://manoflabook.com/wp/?p=39).

Unruly Reader said...

I agree -- amazing book. It's on my list of books to re-read someday.

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