Montana 1948 was written in Wisconsin and published in 1993 by Larry Watson as the follow-up to his doctoral thesis-turned-first novel In a Dark Time. The setting within Montana is the fictional town of Bentrock just—as the title indicates—a few years following the end of hostilities between America and the fascist regimes of Germany, Italy, and Japan. David Hayden provides a first person narration of life in a small town located near an Indian Reservation—as they were known back then—some forty years following the timeline of events. In those heady days when America was still riding on the wings of victory, young David was a mere lad of 12. The intervening years have endowed him with the sort of hindsight that makes one aware of heady days not always being so halcyon in reality.
The result is a literary addition to the ongoing revisionism of the mythic portrait of the West, a portrait which pits tough cowboys who look like John Wayne against bloodthirsty savages in war paint. What makes Montana 1948 stand out from the crowd of revisionist entries in the Western genre is primarily its timeframe. The post-war years of reflection upon the excitement of beating the Nazis would soon become mired in Cold War paranoia, communist witch hunts stirring up needless suspicion and the dawning awareness that many of the German scientists working so hard to destroy America just a few years earlier had traded in their Nazi salutes for high paying jobs and blanket amnesty for war crimes.
This moral ambiguity permeated late 1940s America to such an expansive degree that it required an entirely new genre for filmmakers to place it into proper context. Here, it is realized in the equally dubious morality of the narrator’s father being charged in his role as sheriff with investigating allegations that his own brother has using his position as a doctor to molest woman on the Reservation. What Watson produces from this cesspool ends up seeming less like a traditional Western pitting good guys against the bad guys, and more like a film noir in which it is hard to keep track of who is wearing the white hat and who is wearing the black hat.
The judges in charge of the Milkweed National Fiction Prize were so impressed with the result of Watson’s daring attempt to meld elements of such disparate generic conventions into a cohesive whole that they awarded the manuscript for Montana 1948 their top prize in America 1993 and subsequently published it to great acclaim. And in 1995, Watson wrote a prequel to Montana 1948 named Justice, which chronicles the Hayden family in the decades leading up to the events of Montana 1948. Justice also received critical acclaim, with many critics remarking on the universality of the characters and their flaws.