The white crosses of the title of Larry Watson’s novel about a small town in late 1950’s Montana are crosses set by the side of the road where fatal car accidents have occurred—such as the accident in which the school principal, Leo Bauer, and a graduating senior, June Moss, are killed. Also on board are their packed suitcases, evidence of the new life they planned to start.
Jack Nevelsen, the sheriff of Mercer County and a former schoolmate of Leo Bauer, makes it his business to protect the reputations of the dead man and girl. Feeling it his job to protect the county from its own secrets, he concocts a lie to make it appear that Leo Bauer was helping his son Rick Bauer elope with June. Jack quickly finds that creating the lie is the easy part; the real work comes with having to live it.
In Sheriff Jack Nevelsen, Watson has created a man whose strengths and weaknesses echo those of his time and place perfectly. The novelist lets readers into the main character’s mind by letting them share the almost limitless storehouse of anecdotes about the town that swirl around in the sheriff’s memory. Jack uses these anecdotes for comfort and distraction especially when he is uncertain, but most importantly, he keeps them to himself, a part of the lonely, uncommunicative world he inhabits. Jack can be self-aware to a painful degree, and readers see the incessant work of maintaining an appearance of reassuring calm and order. Though he is married and has a daughter, his sense of always acting a part leads Jack to feel an outsider to the community he serves and protects. Increasingly, the reader sees how Jack secretly envies the dead man; increasingly, Jack finds himself attracted to Leo’s widow and entertaining thoughts about leaving himself.
Symbolically, the white crosses of the title also represent the life hazards that other people’s mistakes can warn us about. Jack is not blind to the warning implied by Leo’s death, but he is attracted to the mistake. Though the world of Bentrock, Montana, is created with a loving firmness of detail, the novel is constructed so that it can, like the white crosses, serve as a warning sign about dangers of a life based on inhabiting lies and keeping secrets.