Don't Blame It on Montana : MONTANA 1948, By Larry Watson (Milkweed Editions: $17.95; 200 pp.)

Annick Smith edited the Montana anthology "The Last Best Place" and co-produced the film "A River Runs Through It."

To look or not to look at the violence we have done and continue to do to each other in the American West, as everywhere, is an old quandary. For if you see violence, and if you are a moral person, you must act to stop it or suffer the consequences of guilt. But a great many of us are not all that moral.

"You know what your granddad said it means to be a peace officer in Montana?" says the alcoholic old deputy, Len, to David Hayden, the 12-year-old narrator of "Montana 1948." "He said it means knowing when to look and when to look away."

Sounds corrupt, this looking away by authorities sworn to prevent violent acts, or stop them, or punish the breakers of laws. To look or not to look; to act or not to act are dilemmas we face everyday, decisions complicated and various as our lives, always compelling.

For instance, if your war-hero brother, who is a doctor, molests Indian girls under the guise of treating them, and you are the sheriff, should you arrest him? If you are a 12-year-old boy, and you see something that implicates your uncle in a murder, should you tell your sheriff father? If your husband is holding his brother under house arrest in your basement and your father-in-law sends his ranch hands to break out his favorite son, should you shoot at them? Or should you give up and run away in order to protect your only son from the knowledge that will shatter his innocence?

Those are some predicaments the Hayden family faces in "Montana 1948." But beneath the specific plot points lie more universal questions. What is most worth having and keeping: family safety and loyalty, community harmony--or justice?

Larry Watson's spare brief novel, which won the Milkweed National Fiction Prize in 1993, is set in the fictional Montana town of Bentrock on the hard, flat Big Sky landscape of the northern Great Plains. It is a border town 12 miles south of Canada, 10 miles west of North Dakota and an hour's ride toward sun-up over gravel roads from the Ft. Warren Indian Reservation, "the rockiest, sandiest, least arable parcel of land in the region."

People stand out in high relief. Like the battered trees they have planted, the 2,000 souls in Bentrock can be rigid, thick-skinned, often silent. They adhere to a near puritanical code that values work, family and community cohesion. The common bloodlusts--sex, envy, greed, violence--are secrets held close under the bark.

World War II reverberates in the background of "Montana 1948." Every remote and isolated community in the West was affected by the war. Cowboys went to war; Indians went to war; and the home folks helped in the war effort. Those men who saw combat in France or the Pacific came home looking for peace and stability. In 1948, says Watson, "the exuberance of the war's end had faded but the relief had not. The mundane workaday world was a gift that had not outworn its shine."

The August of this story buzzed with cicadas and shone with golden grain. It should have been a splendid summer for the sheriff's son, David, a boy who liked to roam the countryside, ride his sorrel horse, Nutty, and sit content on rocks above the Knife River, "asking for no more discourse than the water's monotonous gabble."

David narrates this story as a grown man looking back at one month that changed his life. We are sympathetic because it is a story of love and loss and betrayal, yet there is something unappetizing about this child, this storyteller who listens at keyholes, spies on grown-ups from around corners, behind windows, through air ducts and heat registers. But perhaps spying is the most appropriate way to hear truth in a society that can only speak in whispers, a society that seeks to put walls around its young, blinkers on their eyes.

The summer of 1948 should have been a time of healing, yet old injuries persisted. Genocide and racial prejudice were horrors to fight in Nazi Germany, but another matter back home. At 12, David was beginning to understand how prejudice works. "My father did not like Indians," David says. "No, that's not exactly accurate, because it implies that my father disliked Indians, which wasn't so. He simply held them in low regard."

In Montana, Indians were (and too often still are) second-class citizens, treated by whites as backward and savage. The GI Bill sent young veterans off to college and up the social ladder, but college was not in the universe of possibility for most Indians--not even a war hero and athletic star like Ronnie Tall Bear. "I realize now how much I was a part of that era's thinking," David Hayden continues. "I never wondered then, as I do now, why a college didn't snap up an athlete like Ronnie. Then, I knew without being told, as if it were knowledge that I drank in with the water, that college was not for Indians."

It is Ronnie's girlfriend, Marie Little Soldier, who begins the tragic chain of this novel by falling sick with pneumonia. She works as a live-in housekeeper for Wesley Hayden, sheriff of Bentrock, and Gail, his wife. Marie takes care of the Hayden's only child, David, and he loved her with the chaste, adoring love of a pre-pubescent boy.

With Marie sick in their house, it was only natural that the Haydens call Wesley's brother Frank to treat her. Frank was a physician, a war hero, an athlete who married the prettiest, daintiest blond beauty ever come to Bentrock. "Frank was witty, charming, at smiling ease with his life and everything in it," David says. "Alongside his brother my father soon seemed somewhat prosaic. . . . Nothing glittered in my father's wake the way it did in Uncle Frank's."

Marie gets hysterical at the idea of being treated by Dr. Frank. She insists that Gail be in the room when Frank is with her, and later accuses Frank of molesting Indian girls. Grandpa Hayden dismisses Frank's attraction to "red-meat" with his characteristic laugh, "a deep, breathy cuh-cuh-cuh. " The old man can't believe Wesley's torment about whether to look away or not. No real man would shame his brother, put him in jail for giving in to natural desires.

Gail Hayden is not forgiving. She insists that her husband do his sworn duty to God and society. "That's not the way it works," she says when Wesley claims to have solved the problem with a handshake. Frank, says Wesley, has promised to "cut it out." The damage that has been done cannot be undone, it can only be stopped. Gail won't buy this evasion. "Sins--crimes--are not supposed to go unpunished."

Because "Montana 1948" is so intense, so short, so straight-to-the-kill, it would be a disservice to discuss its denouement in sequence or in detail. Only know there will be murder. There will be suicide. There will be breaking of fruit jars in the basement.

Larry Watson is one of those good writers who few people know about, a writer whose work is worthy of prizes such as an NEA creative writing fellowship (1987) and the 1993 Milkweed Fiction Prize. His first novel, "In a Dark Time," was published by Scribner's in 1980, and his chapbook of poems, "Leaving Dakota," appeared in 1983. Watson knows his plains firsthand, having been born and raised in North Dakota.

Perhaps style is the reason Watson's name rings like a new bell even though he has been publishing for 13 years or more. The style of "Montana 1948" is as thin, clear and crisp as a North Dakota wind. It mirrors the landscape of his story; it is appropriate to the plain-spoken characters he creates. The style is so plain you may be tempted to think it is artless. Not so. Try to tell a complicated moral tale with no embellishments. Try to create vivid, living characters who speak truly. See if you can make us keep turning the pages.

In the epilogue, David's wife Betsy wants to visit his childhood home in Montana, but David, like his mother and father, will never go back. No one in his tight little family has ever discussed the summer of 1948. "Like people too polite to mention that someone in our midst is bleeding from an open wound," he explains, "we don't talk about it."

Betsy, however, is an outsider, not too polite, not too repressed to ask. At a Thanksgiving dinner at the Hayden home in Fargo, Betsy remarks to her father-in-law, "David told me all about what happened when you lived in Montana. That sure was the Wild West, wasn't it?"

The old, lame, sick with cancer lawyer and ex-sheriff Wesley Hayden (not such a far remove from John Wesley Hardin) slams his hand down on the table so hard the dinnerware jumps.

"Don't blame Montana!" he shouts. "Don't ever blame Montana!"

Which is a fine way to end this moral fable and small bit of Western history. It is always us humans who carry the guilt, who can be blamed. Never the weather. Never the place.

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