Montana 1948 Summary
by Larry Watson

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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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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.

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...

(The entire section is 1,265 words.)