Montana 1948

Montana 1948 Symbols, Allegory and Motifs

The Myth of the Wild West (Motif)

A recurring idea in Montana 1948 is the popular stereotype of the American West as an untamed, unruly place filled with “wild and woolly cowboys” (Watson 76). A character like Grandpa Hayden seems to validate this myth with his ostentatious displays of wealth and his questionable beliefs. For example, his ranch outside of town “looks like every Easterner’s idea of a dude ranch,” with its sheepskin rugs, Indian blankets as wall decorations, racks of animal antlers, and huge gun cases (Watson 69). Furthermore, when he hears misconstrued information about Frank’s assault on a Native American, he says to Wesley, “since when do you get arrested in this part of the country for taking a poke at a man, red or white…” (Watson 121). This statement suggests the West does in fact operate under different moral and legal codes than the rest of the country, and it's as wild as Hollywood and Western novels portray it to be.

Len even references the American West’s stereotypes and negative reputation when he tries to convince Wesley to release Frank. He says, “[Frank’s case] will make Mercer County look like the Indian wars and the range wars combined” (Watson 151), because it will pit the Native Americans against white Americans. This does make Wesley pause for a second, because if there’s one thing he dislikes, it’s stereotypes about Montana and the West. He even criticizes how his father’s ranch plays into every stereotype about Western life, one of the only things he dares to criticize about his father. That’s why at the end of the novel Wesley has a dramatic reaction to Betsey attributing the events of 1948 to the Wild West. He tells her to not blame Montana before storming off. Wesley’s feelings echo a point Watson tries to make throughout his novel. The events of Montana 1948 shouldn’t be blamed on the unique culture of the mythical Wild West. Rather, the universal forces of racism, white supremacy, corruption, and fragmented family bonds are the culprits. These forces were present throughout the United States in 1948, and not limited to the American West.

Nutty (Symbol)

Nutty was David’s shaggy sorrel horse kept at the Hayden family ranch. During his childhood years, David loved riding Nutty, along with other boyhood hobbies like swimming, fishing, hunting, etc. In many ways, Nutty symbolizes the halcyon days of David’s childhood before the drama surrounding Frank and his evil acts rips them away. After Grandpa and Grandma Hayden come to his house demanding answers about Frank’s arrest, and leave with a deep chasm formed in the family, David believes he will never see Nutty again. Besides the physical act of never again seeing his pet, David also believes he will never again be the innocent boy that was able to ride Nutty without a care in the world. Frank’s crimes have pushed David off the path of naive boyhood onto the path of jaded manhood. Now, David must leave Nutty behind because “the distance between [them] seemed too great for either Nutty or [David] to travel ever again” (Watson 130).

Frank’s Medical Bag (Symbol)

As a doctor, Frank has a respected, trusted, and powerful position in his community. This is a power he abused when he sexually assaulted and raped his Native American female patients. Like most doctors, Frank would always bring a medical bag with him when seeing a patient. Medical bags hold the tools and medicines a doctor needs to provide care for their patients, and thus symbolize health and help. However, for the patients that Frank raped, his medical bag probably symbolizes pain, violence, and fear. And in the case of Marie Little Soldier, who Frank murders, Frank’s medical bag symbolizes death.

The Hayden Name (Symbol)

“I was a Hayden. I knew, from the time I was very young and without having been told, that that meant something in Bentrock” (Watson 130).

In Mercer County, the Haydens are synonymous with aristocracy. Grandpa Hayden is wealthy and powerful, Wesley enforces the law, and Frank treats the sick and injured. Furthermore, in a “luckless, hardscrabble region” they are prosperous and well-off. For all these reasons, the Hayden name is at first symbolic of power and prestige. However, as the rumors of Frank’s crimes begin to spread around town, David fears that his family name will begin to symbolize “perversion, scandal, family division, and decay” (Watson 131). Instead of the Hayden name giving him a measure of respect, it would become an unwanted identity that he couldn’t deny or disown.

Protecting the Vulnerable (Motif)

Protecting the vulnerable is another motif in the novel. One character who everyone tries to shield from life’s harsh truths is Grandma Hayden. As a “nervous” woman with a condition that could strike her down at any moment, she’s someone everyone tries to protect. An example of this would be when she and Grandpa Hayden come to David’s house after hearing of Frank’s arrest. Wesley doesn’t want to talk about his brother’s crimes in front of his fragile and nervous mother, so Grandpa Hayden tells her to leave the room. When Wesley yells “murder,” finally cracking under Grandpa Hayden’s pressure, Grandma Hayden hears him and begins to sob. Wesley is then blamed for agitating his mother.

Another character who is viewed as vulnerable and in need of protection is David. During that same visit, David becomes scared of his grandfather, and it’s Grandma Hayden who speaks up and pleads with her husband to remember that David is present. Furthermore, throughout Wesley’s investigation of Frank, David’s parents try to shield him from the violence and horror of his uncle’s actions. At first they refuse to tell him why Wesley is interrogating Marie, and send him out the house when discussing the case. Eventually though, the stress and strain of Frank’s crimes become too much. The day Grandpa Hayden’s men try to break Frank out of the basement, David’s parents stop shielding him from the truth. His mom allows him to hear a frank discussion of how Frank killed Marie, and his dad talks to him about the importance of Frank facing justice. As David says, there’s no longer a point in protecting him “when evil and danger were so near at hand” (Watson 153).

Ironically, Frank is another person who people try to protect in the novel. When Wesley first begins his investigation by questioning Marie, he makes sure there are no witnesses in order to protect his older brother. And even when Frank admits to his crimes, Wesley lets his brother go because he doesn’t want him to go to jail. It takes Marie’s murder for Wesley to seriously investigate and arrest his brother, but he still continues to protect Frank by holding him in the basement of his home. Thus, Frank’s reputation as a war hero, trusted doctor, and overall town golden boy could remain intact for a little while longer. Finally, when Frank commits suicide the true circumstances of his death, including his crimes against Native American women, remain a secret. His family and other people involved in the case (Len and Ollie Young Bear) protect him even as he lies in his grave.