Montana 1948: A Novel by Larry Watson (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 1993. 186 pp)

Born and raised in North Dakota, Larry Watson is the author of many novels including In a Dark Time, White Crosses, Orchard, and Laura. Also the author of a collection of fiction, Justice, and a book of poetry, Leaving Dakota, Watson has received numerous awards and prizes for his work. He lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.


If I am being honest, there’s a draw to rural living. When you strip away the high-powered jobs, the unending activity, the bright lights, and the over-priced restaurants, it would seem that life becomes easier. In a small town, you know your grocer, banker, and barber by name. The role you play in the community becomes important—to the point where you can’t hide behind a mistake you make. If there’s an issue due to your work, everyone will know about it.

It would seem that a rural small town means more time with family and friends and an attitude to work where the point is sustenance, not extensive profit.

Yet, the stain of human nature never goes away. Small town living has its fair share of issues. And Larry Watson’s Montana 1948 removes the sheen of the rural, small town way of life.

The Way Life Changes

A coming of age story, Montana 1948 illustrates the events that reshaped the life of young David Hayden. The son of the town sheriff, and the grandson of the previous sheriff, 1948 becomes a year of infamy when a young Sioux women, the Hayden family helper, becomes ill.

Even though her sickness is a serious case, the woman refuses doctor assistance. In spite of her pleas, the family seeks the counsel of David’s uncle, the town physician. After quite a tantrum, David’s parents discover some startling revelations about this physician in the family.

In light of this knowledge, the family must face difficult choices between family, love, and justice.

The core of this story surrounds the shifting viewpoint of David, our protagonist. A young, impressionable mind, David represents the idealized view of life we all have in some way or another. As children, we have all experienced the time where the toils of life hold no important place in our psyche. Everything will always be all right. Our parents protect us and we have no responsibilities to bring us down.

But, the day always comes when the cold and stark reality of life emerges. It won’t be a cake walk. Stress, anxiety, and mourning balance the times of excitement and joy. Life, it seems, is that proverbial roller coaster.

Deep in a Good Heart’s Chambers

The many facets of this motif emerge through the eyes of our main character—a child facing unsettling realizations about his family, his way of life, and the way things ought to be compared to the way they are.

Watson diagnoses this issue when he writes:

“Looking in the dead bird’s eye, I realized that these strange, unthought-of connections—sex and death, lust and violence, desire and degradation—are there, there, deep in even a good heart’s chambers” (73).

People, like life, are never divorced from their inner demons. Watson contends that every person might be a few circumstantial influences away from a morally reprehensible position. We all have a brokenness ingrained deep within us. And that time we figure it out in our youth is a formative one. We can either choose to fight it back with everything we have, or we can accept our fate and act according to our instinct.

Either way, the ideals we have for life don’t exist. Rural life can seem like a welcomed substitute for the rat race of the city. But Watson is quick to point out. We all live with the stain of life, no matter our zip code.

Check out Montana 1948 if you are interested in a quick read about human nature.

Verdict: 4 out of 5

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