Monday, July 9, 2012

Montana 1948 by Larry Watson

"It is commonplace to refer to the narrowness and intolerance of small-town life, but it seems to me just the opposite is true, at least of Bentrock, Montana, in 1948.  The citizens of that community tolerated all kinds of behavior, from the eccentric to the unusual to the aberrant.  From Miss Schott and her palominos to Mrs. Russell, who was a kleptomaniac (…) to Arne Olsen, a farmer, who never (never) bathed and was proud of the fact, to Mr. Prentice, the band director at the high school who liked his boy students better than he liked his girl students, to old Henry Sandstrom, who shot mourning doves in his backyard, cooked them, and ate them.  To my uncle Frank who molested his patients.  How many other secrets had our town agreed to keep?"  Page 121
Finding a story that deals with the bad side of tolerance is a bit odd.  Generally we encourage people to not be afraid of someone else just because they are different.  David, the narrator of Montana 1948, struggles to come to terms with a kept quiet family secret.  He learns of people's acceptance and tolerance of what he only vaguely understands but deems terrible. His struggle, and more explicitly his father's, is in doing the right thing under the eyes of those who would rather look away.  
There are two communities in this novel.  The first is the one that David is aware of: the town of Bentrock where his wealthy and powerfully connected Grandfather Julian has all-consuming influence.  David's father, Wes, is the sheriff as was his father before him.  David's Uncle Frank--the local high school all-star in everything, and decorated war hero--is not only the most well liked guy around for miles but one of two doctors in the county.  David is twelve when the story begins and by way of being an only child and the indulgences granted by his family name, he is a bit spoiled in his own way.  The other community we never see directly and the bits we do see are slightly colored through David's eye, as the Sioux Indians which touches all parts of the town and proves to be the crux of the book's tension.
Wes' casual racism toward Indian's is inherited from his father, but he can't ignore Sioux house keeper and David's daytime care taker's  illness and certainly not her death with suspected foul-play.  As Marie's health declines she makes it clear she does not want to be treated by Dr. Frank Hayden and it comes out that many women on the reservation have been abused by him in the past, but the word of a Sioux against a Hayden is as good as nothing.  David, in his own way, was in love with Marie and while he doesn't seek to play 'boy detective' he does seek explanations as to her passing and accusations against his uncle.  
The more we think facts, or perhaps even evidence is coming to light the more we see that the horrors he learns of that shook his world are merely common knowledge to so many in Bentrock.  His only solace comes as he see his father chose to do the right thing: arrest his brother, and deal with the nightmare that is Julian.  
The resolution of events is not what readers would expect, and not merely in how the plot unfolds but also in the larger themes of tolerance and injustice and what people choose to turn a blind eye on and never again give it thought too, no matter how disturbing.       
The events of David's childhood managed to distort his perception of reality all around him and certainly had to affect him as he grew into an adult.  
"For myself, I eventually became a history teacher in a Rochester, Minnesota, high school.  I did not--do not--believe in the purity and certainty of the study of history over law.  Not at all.  Quite the opposite.  I find history endlessly amusing, knowing, as I do , that the record of any human community might omit stories of sexual abuse, murder, suicide….  Who knows--perhaps any regions' most dramatic, most sensational stories were not played out in the public view but were confined to small, private places.  A doctor's office, say.  A white frame house on a quiet street.  So no matter what the historical documents might say, I feel free to augment them with whatever lurid or comical fantasy my imagination might concoct.  And know that the truth might not be far off.  These musings, of course, are for my private enjoyment.  For my students I keep a straight face and pretend that the text tells the truth, whole and unembellished."  Page 164
Much of what was presented felt familiar (swap rural south and blacks for 'no-where' Montana and Sioux) but simplicity of the themes and their universal resonance makes this story hard to ignore and powerfully compelling.  

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