A narrative 'River' in story of brothers

March 22, 1994|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,Staff Writer

Be prepared to read this compact book in one sitting. Start at 10 p.m. By 11, you're hooked. You finish in the wee hours, mesmerized by the fast-moving plot, the terse language, uncompromising characterization and insights into life on the northern plains just after World War II.

It's quite a wonderful little book, one that has roughly the status in 1994 that another book set in Montana, Norman Maclean's autobiographical "A River Runs Through It," had the year after its publication in 1976. "Montana 1948" is being passed among friends and family members, as "River" was. It's getting a smattering of glowing newspaper and magazine reviews, and it's poised for stardom (and the movies). Both are short books, both examining the complicated love-hate relationship of brothers, both published by houses not used to big-time promotion (University of Chicago Press in the case of "River," a nonprofit Minneapolis publisher in the case of "Montana 1948").

Larry Watson's second novel, though, is set in the hard flatland of northeastern Montana, far from the mountains and trout streams of Maclean's world. Mr. Watson's Mercer County, a thinly disguised Sheridan County, Mont., is a place where "life was simply too hard, and so much of your attention and energy went into keeping not only yourself but also your family, your crops, and your cattle alive, that nothing was left over for raising hell or making trouble."

But oh, does trouble ensue! David Hayden, the adult narrator remembering his 12th summer in 1948, tells the story of how his father, Wesley, the county sheriff, discovers that his war-hero brother, Frank, the county doctor, has been molesting young women on the nearby Sioux reservation.

Will Wesley, can he, arrest his own brother? Frank is the favored son, the chosen speaker at Fourth of July exercises in Bentrock. The answer becomes apparent when Marie Little Soldier, housekeeper for the Wesley Hayden family, dies under mysterious circumstances after adamantly resisting a physical examination under the exploring hands of Frank.

Rape, murder, suicide are all part of "Montana 1948," but this is no pot-boiler or formula murder mystery. Mr. Watson unfolds the plot through his own eyes and ears at 12, just old enough to have developed a crush on Marie ("Because she talked to me, DTC cared for me . . . Because she was older but not too old . . . Because she was not as quiet and conventional as every other adult I knew . . . Because she was sexy, though my love for her was, as a 12-year-old's often is, chaste"). The boy has to assemble the puzzle's pieces by eavesdropping. Like most 12-year-olds, he is shielded by a kind of family public relations until the crisis spins out of control. Then the PR. is abandoned, and David sees his parents in stark relief.

"Montana 1948" is a book about moral courage. One of its heroes is David's mother, Gail, who takes up arms against the bad guys. But Mr. Watson strips the moment of its violence and renders it poignant and loving:

"The sight of my mother loading that shotgun was frightening -- yes -- but also oddly touching. She was so clumsy, so obviously unsuited for what she was doing that it reminded me of what she looked like when she once put on a baseball glove and tried to play catch with me. I wanted to rush over to her, to help her, to relieve her of the awful duty she had taken up."

(Gail Hayden is another example of the courageous women without whom the settlement of the West would have been impossible. Mary Clearman Blew's "All But the Waltz," a brilliant memoir of five generations of a Montana ranch family, brings more of these pioneers to life.)

Thirteen years elapsed between Mr. Watson's first novel, "In a Dark Time," and "Montana 1948." Perhaps now Mr. Watson, a professor at the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point, will be discovered. His style is Hemingwayesque -- short, crisp sentences, a plain style that seems artless at first, an enviable ability to relate setting to action and another ability to moralize without crushing the reader under his wheels.

Just as "A River Runs Through It" rose to national acclaim in the 1980s, we'll hear more about "Montana 1948."

Mike Bowler edits The Evening Sun's Other Voices page. He is a native of Montana.


Title: "Montana 1948"

Author: Larry Watson

Publisher: Milkweed Editions

Length, price: 175 pages, $17.95

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