Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell

Larry Watson, Montana 1948 (1993)

Larry Watson’s novel Montana 1948 (1993) is a fictional contribution to the revision of the history and mythology of the American West.  In this novel, the ‘cowboys’ are the villains and the ‘Indians’ are virtuous. 

This is evident, for example, in the fashion in which two traditional American heroes, the sheriff and the war hero, are presented and subverted.  Grandfather Julian Hayden, the former town sheriff, represents a traditional Western hero. He is a frontiersman, a pioneer whose wealth and status seem to have originated in his personal qualities of grit, determination and courage.  As the former town sheriff, he is the kind of hero whom readers would expect to see upholding justice.  But readers soon discover that Julian Hayden is crude, racist and so determined to have his own way that he is willing to subvert the course of justice. 

Frank Hayden, the son of Julian Hayden, is a war hero.  He is depicted as a chip-off-the-old-block, socialised to be like his role-model father.  Frank is a war hero and a professional man, a doctor.  He has qualities that are highly respected in conservative middle-America.  Indeed, Frank represents the conservative American ideal.  He is also handsome, charming, and married to a beautiful woman.  This ideal all-American image is undermined in the novel by the revelation that he is a racist and rapist who targets native-American women, people who lack power and are vulnerable.  Frank will commit suicide when his crimes come to light and he potentially faces legal punishment.  The cover-up of the truth about Frank’s crimes and suicide is a metaphor for the falsification, sanitisation and mythologising of American history. 

Larry Watson implies that the victors told the history of the American West and conveniently left out the dark side.  Watson seems to be inviting his readers to reconsider the history of the American West in the light of the characters and events depicted in Montana 1948, a process that would require an almost complete inversion of the traditional (or conservative) conceptualisation of those who were considered virtuous or villainous. 

Larry Watson exposes what he believes is the moral hypocrisy of the American West by placing his characters in a situation where they have to decide how they will respond (to do nothing is a response) to a complex moral problem – what to do following the revelation of Frank’s crimes.  The novel successively presents new dimensions to the problem until it is almost impossible for the readers to see the problem as resolvable in any fashion other than what Watson believes is right and just.  This invites the readers to rate the characters according to how they respond − some do the right thing while others do not.  The sheriff Wesley Haden (who is another son of the former sheriff Julian Hayden) along with his wife Gail, do the right thing, while their teenage son David also does the right thing.  In David’s case this involves thinking the morally right answers and admitting he was a witness to one of his uncle Frank’s crimes.  Meanwhile, the traditional American ‘heroes’, Julian and Frank, do the wrong thing.   

Furthermore, Watson depicts those characters who make the morally right decisions as imperfect, as admirable individuals who are not traditional heroes.  This suggests that ordinary people can do the right thing.  The Sheriff Wesley Hayden initially tries to avoid the issue of Frank’s crimes as he tries to deal with his internal conflict between family loyalty and his responsibilities to uphold the law and to treat Marie (the rape victim) with the decency she deserves.  Frank’s guilt regarding Marie’s sudden death narrows Wesley’s moral choices.  It is one thing to cover up sexual assault but another to cover up a murder.  Meanwhile his wife Gail, who initially does the right thing, later wavers in her resolve after she has had to make a courageous stand in the face of dangerous opponents. 

Racism and sexism are depicted as dominant values in American society, which lead to the unjust treatment of disadvantaged groups – native-Americans and especially native-American women.  Rape is depicted as a manifestation of the powerful exploiting the powerless. 

Young David Hayden is presented as not having been fully socialised into the value system of his community, and this allows him to see the injustices of racism and sexism more clearly than, for example, his father Wesley. 

In regards to the character David, Montana 1948 is also a coming-of-age story.  David’s maturity is acquired through the wisdom that comes from experience and reflection upon that experience.  Hence, David attains maturity due to the events of one dramatic summer.  Importantly, David’s maturity is equated with the acquisition of a particular set of values presented in the novel to represent true wisdom.  They are primarily anti-racism and anti-sexism. 

Student resources by Dr Mark Lopez

© Mark Lopez 2021 All RIGHTS RESERVED

The purpose of the concise notes of Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell is to provide much needed help to students seeking to unlock the meaning of the texts with which they have to deal.  (More elaborate notes are provided in lessons as part of my private tutoring business.)  

Subject: Montana 1948 meaning, Montana 1948 themes, Montana 1948 analysis, Montana 1948 notes