Montana 1948

Montana 1948 Quotes and Analysis

“So my father set aside his fledgling law practice and took the badge my grandfather offered. It would never have occurred to my father to refuse.”

David, p.19

Wesley and Grandpa Hayden have a fraught and troubled relationship. In the eyes of the Hayden family, Grandpa Hayden is the patriarch and undisputed leader. What he says goes, including his ideas and proclamations on how everyone in the family should live their lives. So when Grandpa Hayden proclaims that Wesley should continue the Hayden family legacy of being the sheriff of Mercer County, Wesley is compelled to obey. This is despite Wesley’s education in law and his aspirations to be a lawyer. So ingrained is his impulse to obey his father, and his desire to make him proud, that he is willing to abandon his own dreams.

“My mother’s gaze was fixed upon my father.

'You’re eating,' she said.

'Daisy’s cake. It’s delicious.'

'You can eat...'"

Gail and Wesley, p.53

In this quote Gail is voicing her surprise and disgust that Wesley can stomach food after hearing about Frank’s assault and rape of Native American women. For Gail, Frank’s actions are reprehensible, and she cannot believe her husband doesn’t feel the same way. This is one of the first moments we see the seeds of discord Frank’s crimes will plant in the Hayden family.

“Although Ollie Young Bear was much admired by the white population, he had no special status among the Indians. In fact, I once heard Marie say of Ollie, 'He won’t be happy until he’s white.'"

David and Marie, p.60

Ollie Young Bear is the most beloved Native American in David’s part of Montana. To many white people, he’s a perfect example that all other Native Americans should look up to. This is because he assimilated completely to mainstream American culture, even marrying a white woman. However, as Marie voices in this quote, Ollie is a source of derision and contempt to some Native Americans, who view him as going beyond assimilation and actually trying to become white.

“'They couldn’t arrest us—we are the law!'”

Wesley, p.77

Time and time again members of the Hayden family make subtle references to how they manipulate the law to their benefit. Typically it’s Grandpa Hayden who says he and his family are above the law. However, in this quote it’s actually Wesley declaring that the law can’t touch his family because they are the law. This quote vocalizes the corruption and flouting of justice that characterize the Hayden family, particularly in the later moments of the Montana 1948. Ironically, Wesley’s quote is proven wrong when he must arrest his brother Frank for sexual assault and rape.

“'That’s not the way it works. You know that. Sins—crimes—are not supposed to go unpunished.'”

Gail, p.87

In this quote Gail is acting as the moral compass for her husband Wesley. This is ironic, because as the sheriff it’s Wesley’s responsibility to ensure that law, order, and justice are being upheld in Mercer County. However, when Wesley balks in the face of upholding justice because of his loyalty to his family, it’s Gail who steps up and reminds her husband about the rule of law. This is a rule that holds true even if the attacker is white, and the victim are an oppressed group of Native American woman. What is important to note is that even though Wesley is at first reluctant to make a move against his own brother, he is the one who in the end insists that Frank must be imprisoned for his crimes.

“In short, rather than become grim and dogged when closing in on a suspect, my father became good-humored and gregarious. He became charming. He became more like his brother.”

David, p.108

Here David notes the personality shift that happens when his father is on a case. Rather than being his reserved and placid self, Wesley blossoms into a loud-spoken and gregarious person who is well-liked in the community. He knows that the public is more likely to accept and support the arrests he makes if they like him as he’s conducting his investigation. Despite his other shortcomings, Wesley is clearly a good reader of people, and knows how to manipulate the masses when he needs to.

“'Now,' said my father. 'Do you want to hear my side of it?'"

Wesley, p. 121

In this quote Wesley is speaking to his father about Frank’s arrest. The phrase “my side of it” suggests that Frank and Wesley are on two sides of a petty childhood fight, not a serious rape case. It demonstrates that Wesley is accustomed to defending himself against Frank, and is perhaps used to Grandpa Hayden taking Frank’s side over his. The fraught family dynamics of the Hayden family are on full display.

“'You—investigating?'” In those two words I heard how little respect my grandfather had for my father and anything he did.”

Grandpa Hayden and David, p.122

If we didn’t know what little regard Grandpa Hayden has for his youngest son, we certainly do now. Here, Grandpa Hayden shows his absolute disbelief at the idea of Wesley actually doing his job as sheriff and investigating a case. Clearly, Grandpa Hayden has little to no respect for Wesley, and believes his youngest son is only good enough to live the carefully orchestrated life he (Grandpa Hayden) arranged for him.

“For a while she tendered hopes that I would follow in my father’s footsteps and pursue a career in law. 'Wouldn’t it be something,' she once hopefully said to me when I was in my teens, 'Hayden and Son, Law Partners?' 'Wouldn’t it be more appropriate,' I answered, 'for me to be elected sheriff of Mercer County, Montana, and carry on that Hayden tradition?' She never said another word about what I should do with my life."

David and Gail, p.176

Years after they have left Bentrock, the Frank scandal, and the Hayden family legacy behind, Gail and David have this conversation about David’s future. Ironically, after years of pushing her husband to follow his own path and not just blindly follow Grandpa Hayden’s plans, Gail tries to push David to follow in Wesley’s footsteps and become a lawyer. Unlike his father, David pushes back against his mother’s wishes, and asserts himself. He counters and says he should become the sheriff of Mercer County if she truly wants him to continue the Hayden tradition. This instantly brings to mind the horror and breach of justice that unfolded years ago in Bentrock, and David effectively ends his mother’s interference in his decisions for his future. Clearly, he learned from the mistakes of his grandfather, father, and uncle, and knows how he wants to live his own life.

“'Don’t blame Montana!' he said. 'Don’t ever blame Montana!'”

Wesley, p.181

When Betsy, David’s wife, hears of the tragic events of 1948, she immediately wants to ask David’s parents for their perspectives on the situation. At dinner one night she brings up the story, but attributes what unfolded to being typical of Montana and the “Wild West.” This deeply upsets Wesley, who resents the idea of his home state and the American West being stereotyped and blamed for the heinous crimes of his brother and family. In a way, this quote could be viewed as coming directly from Larry Watson himself. He could be cautioning readers to not blame the events of Montana 1948 on a mythical image of the wild American West propagated in Hollywood movies and classic Westerner novels. Rather, the events in the novel are the fault of a group of men blinded by racism, power, and family legacy.