The Common Good
November-December 1995

Angles of History

by Liane Ellison Norman | November-December 1995

Secrets of the American West

Larry Watson's compact, cleanly written, and compelling novels- Montana 1948 and Justice are rare gifts. Almost everyone I know who has read Montana 1948
first heard of it from a friend or relative, who, intensely moved, urged its reading, as I do here. (Montana 1948 is now in paperback; Justice, published this year, is still only in cloth.)

Both books concern the Hayden family: the grandfather, Julian Hayden, crude, racist, and powerful, who has ruled the town of Bentrock in northern Montana; his two sons, Frank, the war-hero physician (whom he overtly prefers), and Wesley, the slightly lame lawyer-sheriff; and their wives, Enid, Gloria, and Gail. Gail, Wesley's wife, plays an unforgettable and strong role in Montana 1948, though the men are central. Montana 1948
is told by Wesley and Gail's 12-year-old son, David, who observes and comments on the stunning events that quietly unfold. His innocence and effort to understand the terrible ensuing crisis leads the reader to discover the conflicting claims of casual racism, sexual abuse, public responsibility, and family ties.

Montana 1948
is a parable, a refashioning of the story of whites in the Native American West. But the story is far better than a mere parable; it is told with an eye to specific and telling detail, each character emerging with force and particularity. It is not until near the end that the reader realizes she has seen a familiar history from an unaccustomed angle.

The story begins with the illness of a young Dakota housekeeper for Wesley and Gloria, and her fear of treatment by Doctor Frank. In spite of a genteel secretiveness, David learns that Frank has sexually abused his Native American female patients. "Come on, Wesley. Come on, boy," says Grandfather Julian to Wesley. "You know Frank's always been partial to red meat....I wouldn't be surprised if there wasn't some young ones out on the reservation who look a lot like your brother."

Wesley, the sheriff, must decide as a public man how to respond to the wrongs committed by his charismatic brother. He and Gail must find the strength to withstand the opposition of his father, though in the long run it is overwhelming. The denouement is swift, shocking, revealing, satisfying.

IN JUSTICE, FRANK and Wesley are young men caught up in escalating misbehavior involving young women and a gun, going to jail, and being sprung by their father, the younger Julian Hayden, who is also sheriff. The tale doubles back to his youth as a frontiersman, living a hardscrabble life. He is "determined to do a better job than his father of caring and providing for the family." But his idea of caring is to use his power without scruple to get what he wants for and from his mother, wife, sons, and friends.

A fascinating chronicle, Justice
should be read in the order of its publication, after Montana 1948. It both elucidates the prior book and stands alone as a compelling story of interlocking generations of frontiersmen and women.

I am struck that Watson's ability to explore relationships in swift, telling strokes is like that I usually associate with women novelists. The small, down-to-earth details that tell us how people feel, what matters to them, and how they lead their lives are vividly present along with the economy of strong story-telling. And yet, however exact and specific, there is a breadth and resonance to these stories-a sense that in some way they explain a part of the American national character-that takes my breath away.

LIANE ELLISON NORMAN is a free-lance writer living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

 

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