Montana 1948

Montana 1948 Themes


For generations the Hayden family has kept a controlling grasp on the town of Bentrock, Montana, and the rest of Mercer County. This control comes mostly from the county sheriff position, a title that Grandpa Hayden held for decades before relinquishing it to his son, Wesley Hayden. Even though the sheriff of Mercer County is an elected post, Grandpa Hayden’s influence and clout was so strong that voters followed his wishes. According to David, Grandpa Hayden wanted to keep the power of the sheriff’s department in the family and thus in the “proper hands” (Watson 19). In actuality, the sheriff post is not in proper hands, as the Haydens use the power of sheriff in a corrupt way for their own gain.

For example, when the first allegations against Frank are made, Wesley tries to brush them aside instead of beginning an investigation. Because he is the sheriff, Wesley has a duty to investigate, but his loyalty to his brother and family clouds his judgement. When he finally does open an investigation, he makes sure there are no witnesses present for his interview of Marie Little Soldier. This makes even David wonder whether Wesley is “protecting his brother and keeping the number of witnesses to the accounts of his crimes to a minimum” (Watson 63). This proves to be correct, because initially Wesley decides to drop the case when Frank agrees to stop molesting and raping the Native women in their community. When Gail confronts Wesley about his decision, he says, “He’ll [Frank] have to meet his punishment in the hereafter. I won’t do anything to arrange it in this life” (Watson 87). This corruption and usurping of the law persists until Marie Little Soldier is murdered, and Wesley can no longer “look away” (Watson 96).

Grandpa Hayden is another corrupt figure in Montana 1948. When he held the sheriff title, one of his guiding principles was “knowing when to look, and when to look away” (Watson 96). And when his son Wesley is sheriff, he pushes Wesley to release Frank, even though he knows of the serious charges Frank is facing. In response to Wesley’s refusal, Grandpa Hayden says, “stop this before I have to” (Watson 126). This demonstrates that although Grandpa Hayden is no longer sheriff, he still has the means to circumvent the sheriff’s office and release his guilty son. Clearly, the corruption in Mercer County runs deep.


Some of the key questions Montana 1948 poses circle around justice. What is justice? Is there a specific form it takes? And who deserves justice? Though the novel doesn’t present clear-cut answers to these quandaries, the fate of one character does suggest some answers. Looking at Frank, from a criminal justice standpoint the fact that he never had to formally face the charges against him is a problem. His crimes against Native American women were never made public, and his reputation as a Mercer County hero and golden boy remained intact. For his victims, his death, though it means he can never harm them again, rings hollow as a form of justice. However, from the perspective of Frank and his family, his suicide can be viewed as a fitting justice. After abusing his position as a doctor to assault women, and thus forsaking his vows to do no harm, dying by his own hand is a type of poetic justice. The duality of justice in this instance makes us wonder what matters more—justice in the eyes of the public, or personal justice?

The question of who deserves justice is considered through a historical lens in Montana 1948. Today, though justice is not blind or perfect, we have made significant strides as a society to ensure that justice for minorities, underrepresented peoples, and underserved groups is possible. However, as demonstrated in the novel, the same cannot be said for Montana in 1948. For a chunk of the book, Frank’s crimes against Native American women are brushed aside because the powerful and influential people of Mercer County don’t care about justice for those women. Had Frank’s victims been white, it wouldn’t have been possible for Wesley to conceal his brother’s crimes. Furthermore, had Marie Little Soldier been a white woman, her murder wouldn’t have been uninvestigated. But since Frank’s victims were women of color, there isn’t a sense of conviction that he must pay for his crimes. In the end, Frank’s murder of Marie Little Soldier, a beloved member of Wesley’s household, is what convinces him that his brother must answer for his crimes. But even then, it takes the murder of a Native American that Wesley holds dear, not just any Native American, to force Wesley’s hand. This suggests that in 1948, the racial and social dynamics of the United States heavily influenced who, in the eyes of the majority, deserved to receive justice.


Racism is flagrant throughout Montana 1948. Everything from microaggressions to “funny” racist jokes to debilitating institutionalized racism makes an appearance. It first rears its head when Marie Little Soldier refuses to see Frank. Everyone believes she refuses because of the stereotype that Native American people are superstitious and don’t believe in modern medicine. This leads Frank to make the joke that when he comes to see Marie, he’ll do a little dance around her bed and beat some drums (Watson 35). Of course, the true reason Marie refuses is because Frank raped her in the past. When Marie asks for Dr. Snow instead of Frank, Wesley and Gail's prejudices blind them to the fact that Frank, not medicine, is the problem. This prejudice and racism persists when Marie first accuses Frank of assault. Wesley brushes her accusations aside as the confused ramblings of a Native American woman unfamiliar with a doctor’s methods.

The institutionalized racism comes into play when Wesley initially refuses to arrest Frank for his crimes, even though Frank confesses to him. Here we have a sheriff, a defender of justice and a representative of the government, refusing to arrest a man for crimes he’s confessed to because of familial ties, and his own prejudice against the criminal’s victims. The institutionalized racism continues when Wesley finally does form a case against Frank. Early on, Wesley and Len McAuley both admit that it will be hard to prosecute Frank because of “who’s going to be testifying against him” (Watson 150). This is a subtle allusion to the fact that the testimonies of Frank’s Native American victims may not hold much sway in court.

Of course, the most reprehensible racism comes from Frank himself. When Gail changes her mind and tells Wesley to drop the case, Wesley refuses to let his brother walk free. Frank’s complete lack of remorse for his horrible actions against his Native American female victims disgusts even Wesley, who harbors his own prejudice against Native Americans. As Wesley tells Gail, Frank speaks of his victims “as if he had no more concern for what he did than if . . . if he had kicked a dog. No. He’d show more remorse over a dog” (Watson 157). This demonstrates a complete lack of regard for the lives of these Native women, and shows that Frank considers them as less than human. Though the book never explicitly says this, we can assume one of the reasons Frank targets Native American women is because he believes his whiteness and white supremacy will prevail over the truth, if any of the women ever come forward. This is the height of racism.


Morality is another theme that many characters grapple with in Montana 1948. At first, Gail appears to have a stable moral compass. Although Frank is her brother-in-law, and the beloved eldest son of her intimidating father-in-law, she still pushes Wesley to open an investigation. She reminds him everyone must pay for their sins and crimes, no matter who they or their victims are. As the stress and danger of the situation settles in however, Gail forsakes her morality and tells her husband to let Frank go, if it means that she, Wesley, and David will be safe again. Though she starts on a moral high ground, Gail allows her fear for herself and her family to supersede her morals.

Wesley similarly struggles with his own morals as the truth about his brother is revealed. At first he lets his loyalty to his big brother take precedence over his own sense of morality. When Frank confesses but claims he’ll stop assaulting and raping Native women, Wesley decides to let him walk free. However, Marie Little Soldier’s murder and Frank’s lack of remorse tip Wesley over the edge. In the end, his personal sense of morality wins over his ties to his family and his own prejudice against Native Americans. As he tells David the day he arrests Frank, “David, I believe that in this world people must pay for their crimes. It doesn’t matter who you are or who your relations are; if you do wrong, you pay. I believe that. I have to” (Watson 163). This quote and Wesley’s actions demonstrates that though he was forced to become sheriff by Grandpa Hayden, he does have some of the qualities sheriffs are known for—a sense of morality and justice being one of them.


Family permeates every facet of the novel. At its heart, Montana 1948 is the story of one family’s struggle for justice and truth in the face of overwhelming family ties and bonds. The pressure begins years in the past in the form of Grandpa Hayden’s expectations for his sons, and his means of controlling their life outcomes. It persists in the present, when Wesley tries time and time again to please his father and make him proud, but to no avail. And even when Wesley does try to do the difficult part of the job his father arranged for him, he’s accused of being vindictive and jealous of his brother.

Family ties and pressure are what keep Wesley from pursuing Marie Little Soldier’s original allegations against Frank. Wesley’s loyalty to his brother leads him to believe Frank when he says he’ll stop abusing his Native American female patients. And even when Marie is found dead, it takes the eyewitness account from his own son to convince Wesley that he ought to further investigate Frank’s crimes. And as soon as Grandpa Hayden catches wind of Frank’s arrest, he comes to Wesley’s house to tug on these same family ties and demand that Wesley release his brother. As a young David astutely points out to Gail, there’s no way Grandpa Hayden will allow his oldest son to be imprisoned. The fact that Wesley is able to break free of these family ties is commendable, but the cost is his relationship with his father.

Small Town Life

A lesser theme of the novel is the idiosyncratic small town life of mid-20th century Montana. For example, in a town where everyone knows everyone and there are no secrets, the rumor mill is alive and well. That’s how Wesley and Gail first begin to investigate into Marie’s allegations against Frank. They turn to their trusted neighbors, the McAuleys, for information. While Len purportedly has no intel to offer, Daisy is more forthcoming. She reveals that Frank is known around town as not doing “everything on the up-and-up” when it pertains to his Native American patients (Watson 52). It’s a testimony to the power the Hayden name wields in Bentrock, the casual racism Native Americans in Bentrock face, and the small town culture pervading in Bentrock, that no one thinks to report Frank’s crimes, despite them being common knowledge. As David proves when he lists the eccentric behaviors of Bentrock’s odder denizens, part of small town life is “tolerating all kinds of behavior, from the eccentric to the unusual to the aberrant” (Watson 132). For the people of Bentrock, Frank’s actions fall under the aberrant category, and are just another part of small town life to take in stride.

End of Innocence

In some ways Montana 1948 is a bildungsroman detailing David’s transition from boyhood to manhood, and the end of his childhood innocence. This transition has three facets to it. The first is David’s sexual development, as he transitions from his chaste love and crush on Marie Little Soldier to more sexual and lusty thoughts about his Aunt Gloria and Loretta Waterman, a high school girl in his town. The second is David’s exposure to violence, first when he kills the magpie, but also when his grandfather’s men try to break Frank out from the basement. After that day, it seems useless to protect David from evil and danger, when they are “so near at hand” (Watson 153). The final facet is David’s disillusionment with justice and the rule of law. After the events of 1948, he can longer harbor his naive belief that good deeds are rewarded and bad deeds are punished. Looking at his parents, he sees that even when you do the right thing, you can suffer negative consequences. Looking at his uncle Frank, he sees that criminals don’t always get an apt punishment or even their day in court. And looking at Marie, he sees that justice isn’t always served for those who deserve it.