Montana 1948 Summary

Montana 1948 by Larry Watson is a 1993 novella about David Hayden, a twelve-year-old boy whose family is torn apart by a racially charged tragedy.

  • David is cared for by Marie, a Sioux woman whom he adores. One day, Marie becomes sick and is treated by David's uncle, Frank. David hears Marie crying out in anguish.
  • David learns that Frank has sexually abused numerous Native American women.
  • Shortly thereafter, Marie dies. David tells his parents he saw Frank at the house at the time of Marie's death.
  • David's father, Wesley, initially hesitates but then detains Frank in the basement. Frank takes his own life.

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Last Updated on June 24, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1265

The novella opens with the narrator, David Hayden, reflecting back on the summer of 1948, when he was twelve years old. During this summer, he came to understand a truth about his uncle, Frank, which would eventually rip his family apart.

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The action is set in Bentrock, Montana, which is located in the far northeast corner of Montana. The area is known as being “hard country”—rocky, sandy, and marked by drastic temperature changes.

When he was twelve, David’s father, Wesley Hayden, was the town’s sheriff, but he failed to live up to his son’s expectations of what a sheriff should be. He didn’t dress the part, often wearing a shirt and tie with a fedora, and he never carried a gun, on duty or off. His father actually held a law degree, and David’s mother, Gail, always wanted him to practice law instead. Wesley fell into the role of sheriff by way of family tradition, The sheriff of Mercer County could only serve three consecutive terms, and for many years, David’s grandfather, Julian Hayden, and Len McAuley traded off rotations, always keeping the title of sheriff between them. When Julian had decided to retire, he “turned the post over” to Wesley. Given Julian’s domineering personality, David assumes that it never occured to Wesley to refuse the position.

Gail was one of the few women who worked during this time, so David’s parents hired a Hunkpapa Sioux woman named Marie Little Soldier to help with the housework and to keep an eye on David. David loved Marie for her humor, her caring nature, and her beauty.

In the middle of August, Marie became quite ill. She began running a fever and didn’t come out of her room much to take care of David. As soon as Gail returned home, David told her that Marie had been coughing. Given that his mother “feared nothing more than disease,” this immediately became a source of concern. After putting some extra blankets on Marie, Gail told her that if she wasn’t better by evening, they would call Dr. Frank Hayden, Wesley’s brother. Marie immediately became upset, insisting that she didn’t need a doctor. When Gail left for work, Marie pleaded with David that they should refrain from calling the doctor.

David’s parents returned home from work later that evening, and Marie still had a high fever. David reminded his parents that Marie didn’t want a doctor, and Wesley attributed her fears to “Indian superstition.” David had become aware of his father’s racism towards Native Americans when he was only seven or eight.

David’s uncle, Frank, arrived to assess Marie’s condition. After a few minutes of being alone in the room with Frank, Marie began to call out for Gail. Later, David heard Marie scream the word “no” twice in quick succession. After the examination, Frank told the family that Marie likely had pneumonia and left shortly thereafter. Gail later told him that she needed to talk to his father privately, so David snuck around the corner of the house so that he could hear the conversation.

David overheard Gail tell Wesley that Frank had molested several “Indian girls” and that this was why Marie did not want to be left alone with him. She said that Frank had been doing this for years, taking “indecent liberties” with female patients. Wesley asked why an Indian girl would tell the truth and questioned his wife’s belief in these stories. Gail grew upset and finally told her husband outright that Frank had been raping local Native American women.

Given his role as sheriff, this placed Wesley in a predicament. If he listened to the accusations, he faced the prospect of arresting his own brother. He finally decided to interview Marie privately. Shortly thereafter, the family went to visit David’s paternal grandparents, knowing Frank and his wife would be there. David escaped to the wilderness with a gun and some ammunition, killing a magpie before turning back to his grandparents’ house. On the way back, he found Frank and his father engaged in a heated conversation. He couldn’t overhear what they were saying, but the brothers eventually ended in a handshake. When his family left and headed back home, Wesley told Gail that he had talked to Frank about Marie’s accusations and that he had agreed to “cut it out.” Gail was exasperated with this halfhearted effort, but Wesley told her that he would not prosecute his own brother.

At home, Marie’s fever had subsided a bit and she seemed to be recovering. However, the next day she died sometime in the afternoon. Gail found Marie dead when she returned home from work at around 5:15 PM. Shortly afterward, Frank commented that she likely wasn’t doing as well as she wanted everyone to believe. David went to talk to Len McCauley, and Len alluded to knowing something about Marie’s death. David questioned himself, asking, “Did Len know what I knew?” David desperately wanted to unburden himself of a secret regarding Marie’s death but didn’t trust that he and Len were aware of the same information, so he remained quiet.

When he couldn’t sleep that night, David decided to talk to his parents about his secret: he had seen Frank at their house before Marie had likely died, sometime around 3 PM. He also told them that he believed Len had seen the same thing.

Three days later, Wesley brought Frank home and interrogated him in their basement. Convinced of his guilt in Marie’s murder, he decided to detain Frank there instead of taking him directly to jail. Gail convinced Wesley to tell Frank’s wife that Frank had been effectively arrested and was being held at their home.

Not long after, David’s grandparents arrived, and Julian claimed that this “stunt” was due to Wesley’s jealousy of Frank. Eventually, David’s grandparents left, but the next day, some of Julian’s employees showed up at their house in an effort of intimidation. Gail fired a shotgun out the window, and the group dispersed, but she insisted that Wesley restore their home to some sense of normalcy so that she could guarantee David’s safety. Len came over to tell them that Julian had talked to him, saying that he was not going to give up on Frank. Wesley went to talk to Frank and returned to tell Gail that Frank had no remorse for his actions.

That night, they heard Frank smashing glasses of canning jars in the basement. The next morning, they discovered that Frank had sliced his wrists open with the shards of glass and was dead. David realized that, at some level, his uncle’s death had solved their problems.

In the epilogue, David recalls that they moved away from Bentrock that December, his mother having no interest in living in a house so marked by death. Frank’s death was presented to the town as a horrible accident, and he was buried without scandal. David and his parents ended up in Fargo, North Dakota, and his father finally began practicing law.

Years later, when David was an adult, his wife, Betsy, once pressed him to visit his old hometown, and he finally told her the story of his uncle. Later, conversing with Wesley, Betsy remarked to him that the episode in Montana was like the “Wild West,” from what she had heard. Wesley vehemently told her never to “blame Montana” for the scandal.

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