Montana 1948. I’d never heard of this small 1993 classic until a friend recommended it, and I’m sorry it hasn’t received wider recognition. At 164 pages it could qualify as a novella, I suppose, but that’s hardly the point. On the surface, it’s among the simplest works of fiction ever in its language and structure. A brief prologue highlights some key moments in the story we’ll be reading. The narrator (an adult recalling the summer of his twelfth year) highlights his family history, then describes the central event of the book and of his life. From that point, the story seems to tell itself (one of the most difficult effects for any storyteller to achieve) and the action concludes in a manner most writers only dream about–the surprise that in retrospect seems inevitable.
The story revolves around the illness and death of a young Indian woman, a live-in housekeeper/babysitter for family of the narrator, David Hayden. The Hayden’s have deep roots and high position in Bentrock, Montana. David’s father is the sheriff (the third Hayden to occupy that position), his war-hero uncle a respected physician, and his grandfather a domineering rancher/patriarch. There’s a mystery surrounding the death, and the mystery taints both the family and the community. Because David is only twelve, he is not directly privy to much of the information surrounding the events, but he’s a good listener–voyeur and eavesdropper–and, in addition, he happens on some key information so that he himself becomes instrumental in guiding the novel’s events.
Watkins’s choice in taking the young boy’s point of View could be disastrous for the book because there is so much the youngster cannot know that is essential for the reader’s understanding. However, Watkins uses this disadvantage to make the book even more powerful. Conversations and events are reported to David by others somewhat in the same manner as the protagonist in a Greek drama hears news from messengers and a chorus. Because of his spying, David knows more than any of these adult storytellers know he knows, so when they euphamize or ellipsize their accounts, the dramatic irony for the reader is electric.
Montana 1948 is firmly grounded in its own story, but it is also powerfully metaphorical. It’s emblematic of how this society has dealt with Native Americans. Even more, it’s emblematic of how we have dealt with ourselves about our treatment of the Indians. “I could never believe in the rule of law again,” David declares, and so he eschews law enforcement and lawyering for teaching history.
I find history endlessly amusing, knowing, as I do, that the record of any human community might omit stories of sexual abuse, murder, suicide. . . Who knows–perhaps any region’s most dramatic, most sensational stories were not played out in public view, but were confined to small, private places. A doctor’s office, say. A white frame house on a quiet street.
But, though the message of oppression is not new, Montana 1948 makes the venality, corruption, and treachery of American Society’s relationship with the Indians personal in a way that no textbook ever can. One can recite the lists of broken treaties, quote the statistics of poverty and alcoholism, and describe the psychic effects of living in an isolated and smashed culture without exciting more than head shaking pity and remorse. However, to experience the effects of the psychic rot among the community of conquerors is to experience and understand the true impact of moral turpitude. We’re still living it, and if you don’t believe it, read Montana 1948.