Montana 1948 is told from the point of view of an adult David, who’s reflecting on images from his childhood that are “more vivid and lasting than any others of my boyhood and indelible beyond all attempts the years make to erase or fade them” (Watson 11). Here, Watson uses images synonymously with memories. David’s memories appear to him as if they were images or pictures taken with a camera and frozen in time. The three images that stand out to him are of his parents and Marie Little Soldier, three people he loved dearly. In the images they are all in various forms of distress, which is possibly why these particular pictures remained vivid in his mind. There are other images David also remembers, and together they form a tableau that he compares to a movie screen and a Sioux picture calendar.
The novel is set in Mercer County, and Watson gives a detailed description of it so the reader is acclimated to the location of the book’s events. He starts with an in depth explanation of the county’s geographic location, explaining that it’s in the far northeast corner of Montana, barely within the state border, and only 12 miles from Canada. This establishes how isolated the county is from the rest of the state. He also tells us that there is also a Native American reservation in the county, and that it’s located on rockiest, least arable land in the region. This alludes to the unfair treatment the government meted out to Native Americans by giving them the least desirable or profitable land to live on. Watson then describes the sociopolitical situation of Mercer County, explaining that the tough geography and weather of the region kept most people preoccupied with making a living, leaving little energy for violence or crime. Thus the scene is set for Watson’s tale to unfold.
As a child David feels at home in nature. When he’s outside of town and in the countryside he can simply be his truest self. He feels like himself in a way he can’t feel while at school or “in any of the usual human communities that seemed to weaken or scatter [him]” (Watson 22). David demonstrates how important nature is to him when he lists a series of souvenirs he’s gathered from nature over the years. These include a snakeskin, part of a cow’s jawbone, an owl’s coughball, a porcupine quill, and various other vestiges of the land (Watson 21). Later on in the novel, David explains how his mother also takes solace in nature, particularly in the wind. The wind reminds her of North Dakota, her home state, and amid the confusion and drama caused by Frank’s crimes, she longs for it. Nature, and the impact it can have on life, is an important factor in the American West, and Watson successfully relates this by explaining David’s and Gail’s relationships to it.
Visions of Circle Hill
A typical stereotype of the American West is the cowboys vs. Indians trope. In this trope cowboys are the heroes of the West defending it from marauding Indians. One of the major elements of Montana 1948 is the debunking of this stereotype, and the revelation that this image of the righteous white cowboy and savage Indian is false. An important scene that helps to contradict the cowboys vs. Indians trope is David’s dream the day of Marie’s murder. He dreams of Circle Hill, a grassy hill east of Bentrock, and sees all the Native Americans of the region gathered together. Unlike the movies, the Native Americans are not lined up in battle formation, “mounted on war ponies, streaked with war paint, bristling with feathers, or brandishing bows, arrows, lances and tomahawks” (Watson 106). Instead, they are dressed in their typical jeans, cowboy boots, cotton dresses, and flannel shirts, talking quietly amongst themselves and mourning Marie’s death. This image is poignant, because it depicts Native Americans as they are—ordinary people who also mourn the passing of their loved ones. This is just one example of a moment in the novel that disrupts the dubious narrative of the heroic cowboy vs. the savage Indian.
Montana 1948 Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Montana 1948 is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
In the prologue David is a man reflecting on “summer of his twelfth year” in 1948 . Much like the character of Scout in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, David is able to reflect using the voice of both a child and adult. This gives the...
In the epilogue, we learn that Frank died, and that Wesley and Grandpa never spoke again. We also learn that Wesley leaves his job and moves to North Dakota. Wesley became a lawyer, David went to school and became a history teacher, and Gail........