The novel opens with the narrator reflecting on vivid images from the summer when he was 12 years old. Despite his best efforts to erase these images, they remain etched in his mind. The images are of a sick young Sioux woman, the narrator’s father on his knees begging, and the narrator’s mother holding a gun. Other, less traumatic images are the sound of breaking glass and the smell of rotting vegetables. The narrator says these images exist simultaneously in his memory like a movie screen divided into panels and boxes or a Sioux picture calendar where a whole year’s events are painted onto the same buffalo hide. However, for the sake of the story he will present his images, or memories, in a chronological order. He reveals that these events occurred 40 years ago during the summer of 1948, and that his mother and father are now both dead. As for the Sioux woman, he can’t tell us yet what has happened to her, because her fate reveals too much of his story.
Chapter 1 Part 1
In 1948 the narrator’s father was the sheriff of their county, Mercer County, located in the northeast corner of Montana. The narrator and his family lived in Bentrock, the biggest town in Mercer County at less than 2,000 people. Canada is only 12 miles away, and the Fort Warren Indian Reservation is located on the edges of the county. The reservation is on the rockiest, least arable land of the region, but the entirety of northeastern Montana is hard country, so its ranches and farms aren’t very profitable. The narrator believes the difficulty of scraping a living out of the land left people with very little energy to make trouble, making his father’s job as sheriff rather easy. Furthermore, with World War II only having ended three years prior, 1948 still felt like a new, peaceful era. The banality of the typical workday was still a gift that hadn’t lost its shine. Many of the men from Mercer County fought in the war, with the exception of the narrator’s father who had a childhood injury that impacted his walking and thus prevented him from going to the war front. When these soldiers returned home, all they wanted was to work their farms and live peacefully with their families. So, the most severe troubles the narrator’s father encountered were the usual weekly drunks, disputes over property boundaries, a few domestic disturbances, and corralling Bentrock’s rowdy teenagers.
To the narrator, his father’s job as sheriff required very little strength or courage, and this was disappointing to the young boy. He lamented that his father didn’t even look like a Western sheriff, because he didn’t wear boots, Stetsons, or even carry a gun, but rather dressed in a shirt, tie, brogans, a fedora, and left his gun at home. As far as the narrator knew, his father didn’t even keep a firearm at his county jail office, which was located in the courthouse across the street from the narrator’s childhood home. His father also didn’t wear his sheriff’s badge, and the narrator once believed this was part of his father’s self-effacing personality. However, upon his father’s death his mother gave the narrator the badge, and he realized that the heavy badge would have made big holes in his father’s suits and shirts.
The narrator’s mother was also disappointed with her husband’s occupation. She wanted him to use his law degree from the University of North Dakota Law School and be an attorney. She fervently believed that they would all be happier if her husband practiced law and if they didn’t live in Montana. Not because she feared the potentially dangerous life of a sheriff, but because she believed this would allow her husband to be his fullest self. Her beliefs stemmed from her husband’s complicated relationship to his father, and his desire to obey and please his father above all else. Like the narrator’s father, the narrator’s grandfather also served as the sheriff of Mercer County during his heydays, and upon his retirement he passed the mantle to his son in order to retain his own power in the county. Yes, sheriff of Mercer County was an elected position, but such was the popularity and influence of the narrator’s grandfather that if he wanted his son to become sheriff after him, it was done. So the narrator’s father set aside his fledging law practice and took up the sheriff’s badge because it would have never occurred to him to refuse his father. This was frustrating for the narrator’s mother, who wanted her husband to be just himself and not a Mercer County Hayden, which was impossible so long as they lived in Montana in the domain of the narrator’s grandfather.
Besides her husband, the narrator’s mother also feared for the narrator, who wanted to grow up wild in the wilderness and countryside. To the narrator, his frontier town was constricting and he didn’t understand how to live comfortably and unselfconsciously in his community. He was never sure how to behave, and escaped from town as frequently as he could. Once he was free from the trappings of town and in nature, the narrator did things typical of boys his age—horseback riding, hunting, swimming, fishing, etc. He even brought home things like snakeskins, bits of tree bark, and river rocks as mementos. Out in nature he felt like he could be himself, and had a contentment outside of human society that he couldn’t feel within it. All of this alarmed the narrator’s mother, and she wished to live in a larger community where she could better raise her son away from the incivility of the wild. The narrator notes that though his mother was suspicious of wild and rough Montana, she herself was not an urban woman, and actually grew up on a farm in North Dakota.
There is one more character the narrator wants to “sketch,” and that’s Marie Little Soldier. Marie was a Hunkpapa Sioux woman who lived with the narrator’s family during the week as their housekeeper, because his mother worked as nine to five as a secretary. Marie was in her early 20s, tall, pretty, and loved to laugh and talk. The narrator loved her dearly, because she talked to him, took care of him, and was not quiet or conventional like the other adults he knew. Yes, he thought she was sexy and had a crush on her, but his love was chaste. Besides, Marie had a boyfriend named Ronnie Tall Bear who the narrator worshipped. Ronnie was a star athlete of the region, and excelled in every sport he played. After his high school graduation he went on to work on a ranch north of Bentrock, because back then colleges didn’t recruit Native American student athletes. The narrator realizes how much the era’s thinking permeated his own thoughts, because when he was young he never questioned why Ronnie and other Native Americans didn’t attend college. Now, he sarcastically notes that Ronnie wasn’t good enough for college, but he was good enough for the U.S. army, having served in the infantry during World War II.
With his three central characters sketched, the narrator begins his story. It’s mid-August 1948, and Marie is coughing in her room. She stays in her room all morning, and only ventures out to set up lunch for the family. When the narrator’s mother comes home on her lunch, he tells her that Marie is sick. His mother is instantly alarmed, because she fears disease like none other, and takes fighting illnesses very seriously. She goes to Marie’s room and quickly determines that the young woman indeed has a fever. She begins interrogating Marie about her habits over the last few days, including if she’s been around anyone sick. She also tells the narrator to leave the room, fearful of him catching whatever Marie has. The narrator listens but stays just outside the doorway, and watches as his mother wraps Marie in blankets so she can sweat out her fever. His mother says to Marie, “David will be this afternoon if you need anything,” and thus we finally learn that the narrator’s name is David. David’s mother also tells Marie that if she’s not feeling better later, she’ll call Dr. Hayden for a house visit. At these words Marie bolts straight up in bed, and proclaims that she doesn’t need a doctor. This outburst makes her cough again, and David’s mother repeats that she does need a doctor. Marie says that she goes to Dr. Snow, not Dr. Hayden, but David’s mother says that Dr. Hayden is her husband’s brother, and he won’t charge her anything. Still, Marie continues to weakly protest the need for a doctor. David’s mother leaves, instructing David to keep an eye on her.
David obeys his mother, and stays outside but within earshot of Marie’s room. As he sits at the kitchen table, he hears Marie shout his name. When he goes, Marie repeats that she doesn’t need a doctor. As David explains that Dr. Hayden is just his uncle Frank, Marie says she’s feeling better and tries to get out of bed, but has another coughing attack. David helps her back into bed, and promises to tell his parents that she doesn’t want a doctor. When his parents come home at five o’clock he tries to tell them, but his mother checks on Marie and is alarmed by her high fever. She instructs her husband, Wesley, to call his brother Frank. When David protests, Wesley tells him that refusing a doctor is just Native American superstition. David knows his father holds Native Americans in low regard, and stereotypes them as lazy, superstitious, and irresponsible, but still argues on Marie’s behalf. However, when Wesley sarcastically asks if Marie needs a medicine man, not a doctor, David finally gives in.
Wesley calls his brother’s house, and Frank’s wife, a pretty woman named Gloria, answers. Frank and Gloria have no children, something David’s grandfather frequently comments on. Gloria passes the phone to Frank, and Wesley tells him about Marie and her symptoms. He asks his brother to come treat her, but adds that Marie doesn’t want to see a doctor. Frank asks why Marie doesn’t want to see him, and Wesley answers that she didn’t say why, but probably because she’s never been to anyone but the tribal medicine man. Frank jokes and says he’ll do a little dance around Marie’s bed and possibly beat some drums. This makes Wesley laugh, but David’s mother doesn’t, and she goes into Marie’s room.
In the prologue Larry Watson quickly establishes the format and premise of Montana 1948. The novel is a bildungsroman and David, our narrator, is reflecting on a traumatic series of events from when he was 12 years old. During the prologue, David narrates as he is now—a 52 year old with an overarching view of the events from 1948. He sets the tone as somber and reflective when he recounts the three images or memories he can’t forget, and adds an element of suspense when he says that Marie Little Soldier’s fate reveals too much of the story for him to disclose now. This is an example of foreshadowing, and it also suggests that David’s story involves the plight of Native Americans.
When chapter one begins, David “sketches” or describes the three people from the images he talks about in the prologue, in addition to his story’s setting. Like a director, he’s setting the scene of his play before yelling “action.” When illustrating Bentrock, Mercer County, and the part of Montana he lived in at age 12, David uses geographic, demographic, and sociopolitical factoids. For example, he explains how the brutal weather and harsh soil of the area is linked to the low levels of crime and disputes in the area. He also comments on the presence of Native Americans at a nearby reservation, and subtly suggests that they were purposefully given the worst land in the area.
When discussing his father, his mother, and Marie, David focuses on their relationships to him and to each other. He has a good relationship with his father Wesley, but is disappointed that his father’s job as sheriff lacks action and danger. These are clearly the thoughts of a naive young child, and it brings the adage “be careful what you wish for” to mind. David then explains that his father also disappoints his mother, Gail, but for different, non-superficial reasons. Gail’s frustrations with her husband are rooted in his unflinching deference to his father, Grandpa Hayden. In a display of corruption and small town political influence, Grandpa Hayden has managed to keep control of Mercer County in his hands for roughly two decades. Grandpa Hayden’s ability to unofficially pass the title of sheriff, which is an elected position, over to his son demonstrates the themes of corruption and family psychodynamics that will be important throughout the novel.
Racism is another key theme of Montana 1948, and one that comes into play as David begins to discuss Marie Little Soldier. David loved Marie dearly, but realizes that when he was a child there were aspects of Marie’s life he didn’t think to question, aspects that now seem unfair and unjust. For example, though Marie’s boyfriend Ronnie Tall Bear was an excellent athlete who was fully capable of competing on the collegiate level, no colleges or universities tried to recruit him because he was a Sioux man, and colleges were prejudiced against Native Americans back then. As a child David never questioned this, as it was an unspoken fact of life, but now as an adult he recognizes the racism for what it is. Another example of racism and prejudice would be the Haydens’ reaction when Marie refuses to see a doctor. Wesley, who has a low regard for Native Americans, blames Marie’s fear on ignorant Native American superstition. When Frank, the family doctor, hears of Marie’s refusal, he makes a racist joke, showing he also has a low opinion of the feelings and beliefs of Native people.
One more interesting thing to note is David’s place in his own story. As a young boy, David has no power or say in the events happening around him. This makes David an unusual protagonist, because protagonists typically play a more active role in their own stories. He’s simply a fly on the wall, observing the decisions of the adults in his life and the impact of those decisions. Thus, it’s fitting that we don’t find out David’s name until several pages into the novel. He’s just the messenger for a story involving Marie and his parents.