Miss S says she was ‘forced’ to study the novella Montana 1948 by Larry Watson this year at school and was surprised when I ‘chose’ to read her copy. Later, Miss S and I discussed the story and I was impressed by her insights into and understanding of the plot, characters, time and place.
Honey-Bunny was also ‘forced’ to read Montana 1948 when she was in High School. I read this book then, too, for similar reasons…
Montana 1948 is told by twelve-year old David Hayden, who is the son of Sheriff Wesley Hayden of Bentrock, nephew of war-hero Doctor Frank Hayden, and grandson of the richest and most powerful rancher in Mercer County. David’s mother Gail and his Aunt Gloria, Frank’s wife, are the most beautiful women in Bentrock.
David is an only child. He and his friends ride horses, swim, fish and hunt, although David admits to feeling his greatest contentment when he was on his own, outside of town, and left just to ‘be’. David’s home is happy and peaceful. The family housekeeper and David’s babysitter is Marie Little Soldier, a Sioux woman, and David loves her as much as he does his parents.
The story begins when Marie becomes ill and against her wishes, David’s parents ask Frank to pay her a visit. They put Marie’s refusal to see him down to Indian superstitions and insist on her being checked by Frank, but when they insist, Marie insists on Gail being present during the examination. Later, Gail tells Frank that Marie told her that Frank is known for sexually abusing the women he treats on the reservations.
David describes his father as having low regard for Indians and that his opinion was the usual for a white man in Montana at that time. Sheriff Hayden treated Indians with “generosity, kindness, and respect (as he could treat every human being)” but he also believed most Indians were “ignorant, lazy, superstitious, and irresponsible.” As an Australian, I can see why this book was chosen for our children to study…
Regardless of Sheriff Hayden’s prejudices, he and David’s mother begin an investigation and soon find that Marie’s claims are true. Soon after, Marie is found dead and the Sheriff finds himself in the difficult position of having to arrest his brother for Marie’s murder, a decision which is not supported by his father or mother. Frank is locked in the family basement while an arraignment in another town is being arranged.
This story has similarities with To Kill a Mockingbird, racism, family, moral dilemmas, love, strength of character and growth in a coming of age story.
I remember being ‘forced’ to study Animal Farm by George Orwell and Lord of the Flies by William Golding in school. I disliked both at the time, but all these years later I still think about the questions raised by both stories, which is how I judge a ‘good’ book. I’m sure Miss S and her classmates will remember Montana 1948 for the same reasons when they are older.
A little story from when He Who Eats All of Our Leftovers and I were first going out. He asked me to the movies to see Of Mice and Men because he’d read and enjoyed the book by John Steinbeck, which convinced me that HWEAoOL was a keeper. Later, when I was well and truly hooked, HWEAoOL told me Of Mice and Men was the only book he’d ever read and that was only because he had been ‘forced’ to in school. Swallowing my disappointment, I realised that if you were only going to read one book in your lifetime, it might as well be a good one.