Montana 1948

by Larry Watson

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Montana 1948 Themes

The main themes in Montana 1948 are racism and prejudice, loyalty and honor, and loss of innocence.

  • Racism and prejudice: The town of Bentrock is riven by racial prejudice, and its White citizens consistently devalue the lives of Native Americans.
  • Loyalty and honor: Wesley is torn between his commitment to the law and his loyalty to his brother and father. He finds honor in breaking the latter loyalty.
  • Loss of innocence: David undergoes a transformation from innocence to experience as he witnesses the tragic events that shake his family in 1948.


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Last Updated on September 6, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1057

Racism and Prejudice

As David examines the events of the summer of 1948 from an adult perspective, readers can hear his voice of reason woven into the injustices which he encountered as a boy. Marie’s boyfriend, Ronnie Tall Bear, was a phenomenal high school athlete, excelling at baseball, basketball, and track. Yet Ronnie was never recruited by a single college for his talents. As a child, David simply understood that “college was not for Indians.” As an adult, he sees with sad irony the racial prejudice at work in Ronnie’s subsequent service to the Army after high school: “Good enough for the Army but not for college.”

Wesley, David’s father and the town sheriff, is swayed by racial prejudice in ways that influence his work. David understands that Wesley was in many cases a kind man who likely believed himself free of prejudice. But at home Wesley referred to Native Americans as being ignorant and lazy and forbade his son to wear moccasins so that he wouldn’t end up flat-footed and lazy “like the Indians.” Even after Wesley was convinced of his Frank’s crimes against Marie and other Native American women, he was initially willing to let the cases go as long as Frank “cut it out.” It was only after Marie was murdered—with two witnesses placing Frank at the scene of the crime—that Wesley was forced to take action against Frank.

David’s grandfather, Julian, has his own share of deeply racist biases. He is aware of Frank’s behavior with Native American women, but his main concern is not whether the women have consented to Frank’s advances. Instead, he worries that Frank will produce a child with one of these women. His hope in Frank’s marriage to Gloria is that it will “keep him off the reservation.” He tells David’s father that he knows that Frank has “always been partial to red meat” and that this behavior started when Frank was no older than David.

In Bentrock, Montana, in 1948, Native Americans are allowed fewer liberties than their White neighbors. Their voices are muted; although many women have experienced abuse at the hands of Frank, their town doctor, only a couple are willing to speak up, because they understand the prejudiced social structure they exilivest in. Their own sheriff’s initial comments regarding Marie’s accusations show that he doesn’t value their experience or struggles. Indeed, Wesley scoffs at Marie’s reluctance to see a doctor. He never asks Marie herself why she resists the idea. The humanity and dignity of Native Americans is dismissed by the predominately White townspeople of Bentrock, and there are few who are willing to seek justice on the behalf of those who have been victimized.

Loyalty and Honor

Wesley Hayden didn’t become the town’s sheriff because he had sought the title. Instead, it was passed to him after his own father, Julian, decided to retire from the position. Wesley has a law degree, and his wife feels that his talents would be better served pursuing that career. Instead, Wesley feels indebted to Julian’s legacy, and Julian calls this debt into question when trouble arises with Frank. Julian makes it clear that his loyalty in this case lies with the family, not with truth or justice. He questions Wesley outright: “Is that why I gave you that goddamn badge? So you could arrest your own brother?” When Wesley maintains that Frank must be punished for his crimes, Julian orders him to stop the investigation before he takes control of it himself. To Julian, honor is protecting one’s family, no matter the crimes that have been committed. He chooses...

(This entire section contains 1057 words.)

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loyalty to Frank over loyalty to Wesley, sending some acquaintances to Wesley’s house to intimidate the family after Wesley fails to comply with his father’s wishes to protect Frank’s “honor.”

Although Wesley isn’t a particularly honorable man, as evidenced by his racist views of Native Americans, he does decide to follow the law in charging Frank with murder, which alienates him from those who would follow their prejudices blindly. Even though David is just a child at the time of the murder, his loyalty clearly lies with Marie, whom he thinks of as part of his extended family. David therefore grows disgusted with Frank’s actions. The novel’s ending suggests that true honor sometimes asks people to break old loyalties in order to forge meaningful relationships and take principled actions.

Loss of Innocence

Over the course of the novel, David undergoes the arc from innocence to experience. He begins the story as a twelve-year-old who finds his father fairly boring. He wishes that his father, Wesley, dressed more like a typical western sheriff or that he bothered to carry a gun with him from time to time. Because of the conflict that evolves, David is forced to realize the deep character flaws of his father, his uncle, and his grandfather, among others. He realizes that adults have private thoughts and lives, and as he sneaks around in order to discover the truth surrounding Marie’s illness and death, he is introduced to a side of humanity that he has never encountered before.

David learns that adults, even those whom he has respected as a child, lie to cover the truth. They kill people who threaten them. And they intimidate him and his mother in an effort to force his father to bend to a common will. David is also forced to recognize the racism that exists all around him. He loves Marie, and he is heartbroken to overhear Frank taking advantage of her. He reflects upon his father’s comments regarding the innate laziness of Native Americans, and he considers how in his community, Natives often faced “the most patronizing and debilitating prejudice.”

As the plot ends, David is no longer the innocent young boy who thinks his father is incapable of action or grand moments of rescue. Instead, he sees his father torn in a complex storm which divides their family. After Frank’s death, David and his parents leave Bentrock. He never has an inclination to return to the false way he viewed the world as a child, choosing to stay away from Bentrock even after his wife asks him to return in later years.