Montana 1948

Montana 1948 Summary and Analysis of Chapter 3 Part 2 and Epilogue


Chapter 3 Part 2

At 1 am that night David is woken up by the sound of breaking glass. He hears a faint pop before hearing another crash, and realizes the noise is coming from his Uncle Frank in the basement. He runs to his parents' room, but they aren’t there. He goes to the head of the stairs and listens, wondering if Frank is trying to escape through the small basement window, or if someone is trying to break into his house. He finds the courage to walk downstairs, where he finds his parents sitting on the couch. They look like frightened and tired children, and tell David that Frank is breaking the jars of preservatives they keep in the basement. As Gail despairs about all the hard work of her, Marie, and Daisy going to waste, Wesley explains he’s not going downstairs, because that’s what his brother wants. He’s going to wait it out, and tells David to go back to bed. Wesley stands up and puts a reassuring hand on David’s shoulder before steering him towards the stairs. He tells his son to sleep in late, so that by the time he wakes up tomorrow Frank will be gone and everything will be back to normal. But David can’t sleep late, and wakes up at 6 am to an overcast morning. The house is silent, and he runs downstairs assuming he’s the only one awake, but his father is sitting at the kitchen table. Wesley is dressed but barefoot, and waiting to hear Frank move before going downstairs and taking him to the town jail. David realizes that for his father, this is the day he puts his only brother in prison, and tries to find consoling words for him. Wesley shrugs, and says that he believes everyone must pay for their crimes no matter who they or their relations are.

Wesley gets up to make coffee, and begins telling a David a story from his and Frank’s childhood when Grandpa Hayden was sheriff. One day while playing Wesley and his friend stumbled upon dozens of golf balls abandoned in the brush. Excited, the boys began to collect them, but suddenly a trio of Native American brothers with the last name Highdog appeared and claimed the golf balls as their property. Wesley and his friend didn’t want to give them the balls, so they ran away while the Highdog brothers chased after them. Just as it seemed like the Highdog brothers were going to catch them, Wesley and his friend ran into Frank and his friends. Frank and his friends chased after the Highdogs, who managed to get away, but Wesley remembers the memory as a time his brother was there when he needed him. Years later, Wesley found out that the Highdogs wanted the golf balls because they sold them back to the golf course.

At this point the coffee is finished, and Wesley is jolted out of his reverie. He asks if David hears Frank moving, and when David says no, he decides to bring his brother a cup of coffee anyways. He pours two cups, places them on saucers, and asks David to open the basement door for him. Wesley descends the stairs but tells David to leave the door open, as they’ll only be a few minutes. 30 seconds pass, and then David hears his father wail “oh no.” David runs down the basement stairs, and follows the smell of coffee into the root cellar, where he finds his father cradling Frank’s dead body against his chest, the broken jars and preservatives surrounding them. Frank’s wrists are slashed, and blood is everywhere. Wesley looks up and yells at David to wake up his mother and call Len, but not to let his mother come into the basement. After he issues his instructions, Wesley begins to cry. David takes his time walking up the stairs because he’s trying to conceal his satisfaction. He naively believes that his uncle’s suicide has solved all their problems and life will return to normal, almost as if none of this had happened. As he climbs the stairs, David feels gratitude and love for his uncle.


Back in the present, David tells us what became of him and his parents. After months of toiling in the aftermath of Frank’s crimes and suicide, his parents decided to move from Bentrock in early December. Gail could no longer live with the lies they’d concocted to keep Frank’s reputation and image intact. David isn’t sure who decided that they should hide the truth, but the official story was that Frank fell from a ladder and died from a head injury. Aside from the Haydens and the McAuleys, the only person who knew the true story was Clarence Undset, the owner of the funeral home who saw the gashes in Frank’s wrists when he came to take away the body. They also concealed Frank’s crimes, but none of this was enough to mend the rift in the Hayden family. At Frank’s funeral, David’s grandparents and Gloria didn’t speak to David or his parents, and at the burial they stood at opposite sides of the grave, which symbolized the unbridgeable gulf between them. So when Gail pronounced that she could no longer live in Bentrock, Wesley agreed and immediately began to dismantle their lives in Bentrock. He withdrew from the upcoming sheriff election, stating that he found an opportunity to practice law and put his college degree to use. He put their house up for sale, Gail called her parents to arrange for them to stay at their farm while they look for a house, and she withdrew David from school. Wesley and Gail said goodbye to their few remaining friends, and David told his friends they would probably move back the following summer, in order to lessen the blow.

Moving day arrived, and they were about to back out of the driveway when David told his father to wait. He jumped out of the car, and ran back for one last look at his childhood home. He looked back at his parents still sitting in the car, and wondered why his parents, the ones who tried to do the right thing, were the ones who must leave to build a new life elsewhere. For a moment he imagined telling his parents to move on without him because he didn’t know what life would be like, traveling with two hapless, forlorn people.

As it turns out, life wasn’t so bad after all. David and his parents moved to Fargo, North Dakota, where his father got a job at a small law firm. After five years, Wesley was named partner, and Gail finally got her wish: her husband was a lawyer. For years Gail hoped David would follow in his father’s footsteps, and even open up Hayden and Sons, Law Partners, but David quickly shut her down. He told her that truly keeping up the Hayden tradition would mean becoming the sheriff of Mercer County, Montana, and Gail never again talked to him about what he should do with his life. In the end, David decided to become a history teacher in Minnesota. As for everyone else, Grandma Hayden was the only one who kept in contact. She wrote regularly to David and his parents, and even visited them a few times before she became too ill to travel. According to Grandma Hayden, Gloria left Bentrock less than a year after the events of 1948, and moved to Spokane where she remarried. Len McAuley had a stroke and was unable to complete his term as sheriff, so he turned the badge over to his deputy, Johnny Packwood, thus ending decades of Hayden-McAuley rule over the Mercer County sheriff’s office. Coincidentally, Grandpa Hayden also had a stroke, but unlike Len he didn’t survive for years after it and died three days after.

One day David recalled his happiest memory of Marie, a day that he, her, and Ronnie played a game of tag football in his yard. The game had no rhyme or reason to it, and yet David can’t remember a more fun day of playing ball in his life. After playing they went back to the house and shared a jug of apple cider. David realized that he remembered this memory so fondly not only because he loved Marie and Ronnie dearly, but also because for that brief span of time he felt a part of a family that accepted him for himself, not his blood or birthright.

David’s wife, Betsy, lived in seven cities across the Midwest, and one summer decided that they should drive to each town so she could photograph her childhood homes. She suggested that they drive to Montana to see David’s childhood home, but he told her he has no desire to go back. She kept prodding him until he told her about the events of 1948, and the story both stunned and fascinated her. She couldn’t wait to ask David’s parents about their own memories of the summer. David knew that the summer of 1948 was a taboo topic in his family, but he didn’t warn his wife. He wanted to see what would happen if someone else brought up a topic that had never been discussed in detail in his presence. One year during Thanksgiving dinner at his parents’ house, Betsy mentioned to Gail and Wesley that David told her about what happened in Montana, and called Montana the Wild West. Wesley, who had already been through one cancer surgery and was weak because of it, slammed his hands so hard on the table that the plates and silverware jumped. He yelled at Betsy to never blame Montana, before he got up and left the dinner table. He never returned. Later that night, David went back downstairs and sat in his father’s chair at the dining room table. He placed his hands lightly on the wood, and for an instant thought he could still feel it vibrating from his father’s blow.


Frank’s suicide is the climax of the novel, because many of the novel’s conflicts reach a resolution, however unsatisfying those resolutions may be. For example, Wesley no longer has to struggle with being the person placing his only brother in jail. But now, he has to struggle with being one of the reasons he brother decided to commit suicide. Similarly, Wesley and Grandpa Hayden no longer have to argue about Frank’s fate, but they will also never speak again.

Perhaps the most unsatisfying element of Frank’s suicide is what this means for his female victims. Sure, they will never again be subjected to his assault, but the crimes he committed against them will never be punished or publicized. Frank gets to die a hero, and they must grapple with the trauma and horrible memories he gave them, without any form of restitution. Again, questions about justice are raised. Is Frank taking his own life enough punishment for his crimes? Is it fair for the Haydens to decide to preserve Frank’s pristine image by hiding his awful secrets? These are only some of the questions that remain unanswered in the wake of Frank’s suicide.

David also ponders questions of justice and fairness, when thinking about his parents leaving Bentrock and starting a new life elsewhere. He wonders how the two people who were devoted to justice and morality are now the ones forced to uproot and leave. Though this may seem unfair to David and his parents, perhaps it’s their punishment for their role in Marie’s death and Frank’s crimes. Had Wesley not looked the other way and arrested Frank for raping Native American women, perhaps Marie would still be alive. There’s no way to know for sure, but the idea surely crosses Wesley’s mind. As David theorizes, perhaps Wesley’s bitterness and guilt over the events of 1948 manifested itself in the cancer that eventually killed him.

David’s favorite memory of Marie is one of the most powerful moments of the novel. From chapter one, David tells us of the discomfort and disconnect he feels whenever he’s in society around other people. His attachment to nature stems from the solitude and peace he finds when in the wild. So for him to feel comfortable and as a member of a family while playing with Marie and Ronnie speaks volumes. In spite of the racism, prejudice, and corruption that surrounded them, David, Marie, and Ronnie were able to break through the barriers that separated them and forge relationships that defied the expectations of their society. This is just another way that Montana 1948 establishes itself as a unique take on the Western genre.

In the final scene of the novel, Wesley voices one of Larry Watson’s takeaway points. Wesley’s reaction when Betsy attempts to blame the events of 1948 on Montana and the Wild West is an appropriate reaction to anyone who tries to attribute Frank’s crimes to a distinct Western culture. Though some aspects of the story may be different because it occurred in Montana, the overall themes of family ties, corruption, racism, justice, and morality are pertinent for the entire United States. Today, as people of color across the country continue to fight for equal treatment and justice under the law, David’s story about Marie’s death and his uncle’s crimes remains highly topical.