Montana 1948 by Larry Watson

781653Fiction — print. Washington Square, 1995. 175 pgs. Received from PaperBackSwap.

Winner of the Milkweed National Fiction Prize and the Mountains & Plains Bookseller Association Regional Book Award, in addition to being named one of the Best Books of 1993 by both Library Journal and Booklist, this coming-of-age novel was this month’s selection for my mother’s book club. She finished the book yesterday and immediately handed to me saying that I would probably like it, too. She was right.

As the title suggests, this short novel explores the events of 1948 in Montana, specifically the town of Bentrock in the northeastern part of the state. When twelve-year-old David Hayden’s housekeeper/babysitter, Marie Little Solider, falls ill with pneumonia, his parents immediately call for his Uncle Frank, a war hero and the town doctor. Marie, though, wants nothing to do with the good doctor, and David and his parents are horrified that beloved Uncle Frank has been taking liberties with his Indian parents. David’s father is the county sheriff and his love of the law (and his wife’s wishes) force him to begin investigating Marie’s accusations. The investigation and Uncle Frank’s subsequent arrest, which turns the basement of David’s house into a jail, set off a firestorm of resentment from David’s grandparents, and David and his family are caught between saving the reputation of the entire Hayden family and doing the right thing.

Montana 1948 is an examination about what it means to have courage and to execute that courage, but it also contains commentary on how we treat those who don’t look like us and those who remain within the inner circle of our family. Do you work for justice if it will cost your brother and your relationship with your parents? The novel, which reads more like a short story, is a quick read that is beautifully narrated by a character who changes right under your nose. The evolution of David’s views of his father, uncle, and grandfather under the pressure of what happens in the summer of 1948 match those of the reader, and the story is highly realistic; so much so that it’s difficult to believe that this is a fictional account. It’s easy to accept and relate to the challenges this family faces; almost anyone could place themselves into David’s life. What makes Montana 1948 great, though, is the fact that the author never says what the ‘right’ answer is; Watson allows you to make your own conclusions.

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