Montana 1948 is narrated by David Hayden, now a middle-aged history teacher, reflecting on the summer of 1948 that changed his entire life.
It begins with David noticing that his Native American babysitter, Marie Little Soldier is unwell. Gail and Wesley, David’s parents, attempt to enlist the help of Wesley’s brother Frank, a well-respected doctor in the community. However, Marie reacts to this idea with fear, anxiety and resistance. Gail concludes that something sinister must be happening for her to have such a reaction and she presses Marie for why she is so afraid. Marie then reveals to Gail that she has heard that Dr Frank has been sexually abusing many of his female Native American patients. Gail immediately confides in Wesley who is both the Sheriff of their town and Frank’s brother. This becomes the central source of tension, as Wes must decide between his duty as the Sheriff and his loyalty to his family.
This is all told from the perspective of David, our protagonist, who has to watch his father confront his Uncle Frank about these taboo accusations. Eventually, it seems they reach an agreement with Frank to stop the abuse.
Marie is discovered dead the next day in her bed when Gail goes to check up on her. Later that night, David admits to his parents that he saw Frank go into their home in the afternoon and immediately, Wesley concludes that Frank “is guilty as sin” for murdering Marie. As the Sheriff of the town, Wesley is obligated to arrest Frank, but in order to spare Frank the embarrassment, he keeps Frank in their basement instead of sending him to jail.
Upon hearing this news, David’s grandfather, Julian, orders Wesley to release Frank. Julian accuses Wesley of arresting him out of jealousy and he threatens to use his power within the community to set Frank free. At this point, Wesley realises that the power of his father would only be matched by the law, and he decides that he must officially prosecute his brother.
That next day, David, Wes and Gail wake up to find Frank dead, having used broken glass to slit his wrists and commit suicide. Young David believes that this was the right action and hopes that everything would go back to normal. But as the story goes, this is not the case.
Prejudice, discrimination and the abuse of power
Another key theme is prejudice, discrimination and the abuse of power. Frank’s abuse of the Native American women is both an abuse of his power and responsibilities as a Doctor and a way to take advantage of his personal belief in White “racial superiority.” Julian and Frank embody the toxic, violent and bigoted mentality prevalent during that time period, which Watson deplores as reprimandable and unacceptable. Even at the novel’s close, Frank’s death is symbolic in two ways. Firstly, it means that Frank managed to escape persecution, public denouncement and jail time. But more importantly, he is still revered in the community as a “respected man” and a “war hero. '' Therefore, while he physically passes away, his ‘legacy’ and façade of heroism remains alive.
Law vs Justice
One of the central themes of ‘Montana 1948’ is the conflict between abiding by the law and doing what is just. Due to the institutionalised racism that existed in the 1940’s, Frank’s actions were not considered technically illegal, however, by intuitive standards of morality, his rape of Natives in his practice and his subsequent murder of Marie clearly warrant punishment. Thus, Watson touches on the failures of the judicial system to consistently hand out judgements that are morally fair and instead reveals the flaws within the legal system of the time that reflect widespread and corrupt social attitudes.
Loyalty vs Morality
Watson also touches on the conflict between loyalty and morality. This, as we know, forms the crux of narrative’s tension. Should Wes arrest and prosecute his brother Frank or not? Should he stay loyal to his family or uphold the moral values that he must stand by as the towns Sheriff? Gail, David’s mother, embodies all the virtues of morality that we all stand by and she is appalled by Frank’s behaviour and demands that he be persecuted regardless of his relationship with Wes. In sharp contrast, Julian believes that Frank can be excused for his actions because the victims were merely “red meat” Native American women who he views as subhuman.