Sunday, November 29, 2020

Debbie Reese's Notes on Larry Watson's MONTANA 1948

Note from Debbie: This is a page of notes I'm taking as I read Larry Watson's Montana 1948. Originally published in 1993, it is taught in high school classrooms. In the last couple of years, I've had a few inquiries about it. It received starred reviews and though it does not look to me like it was put forth as a book for teens, it appeared on year-end lists of best books for young adults/teens. I have excerpts below but not page numbers because I'm reading an electronic copy of the book. And please note: there are graphic excerpts about rape, in my notes. 

Debbie's Notes:

Chapter 1

The setting includes the "Fort Warren Indian Reservation" which is not a real place. It is described as "the rockiest, sandiest, least arable parcel of land in the region." And, "its roads were unpaved, and many of its shacks looked as though they would barely hold back a breeze." The town, Bentrock, is also fictional. 

The story is told from the point of view of David (Davy). In it, he is 12. His mother, Gail, works out of their home. His father, Wesley Hayden, is the sheriff. Wesley's brother, Frank, is a doctor. Their father was the town sheriff before Wesley accepted the job.

On page 12, Davy tells us that they have a housekeeper who lives with them during the week. Her name is Marie Little Soldier, a Hunkpapa Sioux who is from the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota. Marie's mother married a Canadian who owned a bar called Frenchy's in Bentrock. There is a rumor that Frenchy 
"kept locked in his storeroom a fat old toothless Indian woman whom anyone could have sex with for two dollars." 
Some think it is Marie's mother, but Davy knows that isn't true because Marie's mother is a thin, shy woman. Marie was nearly six feet tall and had a "fleshy amplitude" that made her seem soft and strong, "as if all that body could be ready, at a moment's notice, for sex or work." She had "a wide, pretty face and cheekbones so high, full, and glossy I often wondered if they were naturally like that or if they were puffy and swollen. 

Marie has a boyfriend named Ronnie Tall Bear. Davy adores both of them. 

One time, Davy saw Marie naked when she stepped out of the shower. They were both embarrassed. He saw (location 290): 
Dark nipples that shocked me in the way they stood out like fingertips. A black triangle of public hair below a thick waist and gently rounded belly. 
Marie gets sick. Gail puts blankets on her to sweat out the sickness like Sioux people do (location 290): 
To this day many Sioux practice a kind of purification ritual in which they enclose themselves in a small tent or lodge and with the help of heated stones and water steam themselves until sweat streams from them.
Marie doesn't want Davy's mother to call Dr. Hayden. She prefers Dr. Snow. When she gets worse, Wesley reaches for the phone and Davy tells him again that Marie doesn't want a doctor. Wesley tells him it is Indian superstition. Davy's father (location 354):
... did not like Indians. No, that's not exactly accurate, because it implies that my father disliked Indians, which isn't so. He simply held them in low regard. He was not a hate-filled bit--he probably thought he was free of prejudice!--and he could treat Indians with generosity, kindness, and respect (as he could treat every human being). Nevertheless, he believed Indians, with only a few exceptions, were ignorant, lazy, superstitious, and irresponsible. I first learned of his racism when I was seven or either. An aunt gave me a pair of moccasins for my birthday, and my father forbade me to wear them. When I made a fuss and my mother sided with me, my father said "He wears those and soon he'll be as flat-footed and lazy as an Indian."

His father asks Davy, sarcastically, if Marie needs a medicine man, then calls his brother. Davy listens to the phone call. 
"She didn't say why. My guess is she's never been to anyone but the tribal medicine man." 
He laughs, and hangs up the phone. He says: 
"Frank said maybe he'd do a little dance around the bed. And if that doesn't work he'll try beating some drums." 
Frank arrives and goes into Marie's bedroom. She calls for Davy's mother. Gail goes into Marie's room, too, but Davy can still hear Marie saying no. When Frank comes out, Davy's dad asks what is wrong with her, and Frank says: 
"Like you said on the phone. They're used to being treated by the medicine man. Or some old squaw. But a doctor comes around and they think he's the evil spirit or something." 
Davy's father says: 
"They're not going to make it into the twentieth century until they give up their superstitions and old ways." 
They talk about Marie's care, that she might have pneumonia. Gail says Marie will stay with them. She seems irritated at Frank. He leaves, and she asks Davy to go inside because she needs to talk with Wesley. Davy sneaks around the house to listen and hears (location 527):
The reason, Wesley, the reason Marie didn't want to be examined by Frank is that he--he has... is that your brother has molested Indian girls." Wesley starts to leave but she insists he stay and listen. she tells him "He's been doing it for years, Wes. When the examines an Indian he... he does things he shouldn't. He takes liberties. Indecent liberties." 
She goes on (location 561):
Your brother makes his patients--some of his patients---undress completely and get into indecent positions. He makes them jump up and down while he watches. He fondles their breasts. He--no, don't you turn away. Don't! You asked and I'm going to tell you. All o it. He puts things into these girls. Inside them, there. His instruments. His fingers. He has... your brother I believe has inserted his, his penis into some of these girls. Wesley, your brother is raping these women. These girls. These Indian girls. He offers his services to the reservation, to the BIA school. To the high school for athletic physicals. Then when he gets these girls where he wants them he... Oh! I don't even want to say it again. He does what he wants to do." 
Wesley decides to talk to his deputy, Len, and his wife, Daisy, in a way to see if either of them has heard what Marie shared. Daisy says (location 631): "The word is he doesn't do everything on the up-and-up." and she adds who he does things to by saying "Just the squaws, though." 

When they leave, Davy hears his parents talking. His mother says that people in town know about Frank. Davy realizes that both he and his mother see their husband/Davy's dad as a brother to a pervert. Looking at him, Davy doesn't want to see the ways his uncle Frank's features and his dad's are similar. Wesley says he doesn't want this talk spread over town because there's no proof, and that it will be upsetting to their father (he was sheriff, too), who heroizes Frank. 

Chapter 2

Wesley decides to investigate. He talks to Ollie Young Bear, a Native vet who he holds in high regard as an example of what someone can be if they choose to work hard, if he knows anything about Frank's abuse of Native women. Then Wesley, Gail, and Davy go to visit Julian. Frank is already there, at Julian's ranch house. Julian is waiting on the porch. Davy listens to the two men talk. Julian says Wesley and Gail only had one child, and that they should have had more. They talk about Frank and Gloria (his wife) not having children but that Julian only wants white children. Wesley asks him what that means, and (location 924):
Grandfather laughed a deep, breathy cuh-cuh-cuh that sounded like half cough and half laugh. "Come on, Wesley. Come on, boy. You know Frank's always been partial to red meat. He couldn't have been any older than Davy when Bud caught him down in the stable with that little Indian girl. Bud said to me, 'Mr. Hayden, you better have a talk with that boy. He had that little squaw down on her hands and knees. He's been learning' from watching the dogs and the horses and the bulls.' I wouldn't be surprised if there wasn't some young ones out on the reservation who look a lot like your brother." 

A couple of days later, Marie dies. 


I am pausing my reading to look for reviews and articles about the book. So far, I see that Frank poisoned Marie to protect himself from the accusations. Based on what I've read of the book, it is one that will eventually have a Not Recommended label. In the excerpts I provided above, we see horrific things being said about Native people. Some are said by characters we are not meant to like, but some are stated as fact (Daisy using "squaw" rather than "women"). It is one of those books, I think, where the author intends readers to see anti-Indigenous attitudes. The author does not, I think, imagine that any of his readers might actually be Native. He may not have anticipated how his writing would impact Native readers--or the dynamics in a classroom of Native and non-Native readers. I may have more to say, later, if I come back to read more of the book and share notes and eventually (perhaps), a review. 

For now, I will say that I do not recommend Montana 1948 for any classroom of young people. 

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