Montana 1948

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Themes and Colors
Law versus Justice Theme Icon
Family and Loyalty Theme Icon
Racism, Prejudice, and the American West Theme Icon
Identity Theme Icon
Growing Up Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Montana 1948, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Family and Loyalty Theme Icon

Montana 1948 explores different kinds of familial loyalty, and what happens when these loyalties pull people in different, even opposite, directions. Wesley Hayden has a duty to his brother, but also to Marie Little Soldier, who cares for David and is described as being “like family” several times in the novel. He first tries to deny that his brother Frank could have done the things Marie accused him of doing, but Frank’s guilt quickly becomes clear. He remembers how, as boys, Frank often saved him from abuse and bullying at the hands of older kids. He feels indebted to his brother—he is torn between two loyalties. What’s more, he also feels conflicted about his duty to Marie and his duty to his wife and son, who are endangered when he decides to lock up Frank in the basement (in order to spare him the embarrassment of a jail cell).

Grandfather Hayden chooses one son (Frank) over the other (Wesley). He even goes so far as to send men to Wesley’s house to break Frank out, which terrifies Gail and David. This is a pattern that, it is revealed, has occurred throughout the boys’ childhoods. Frank has always been the favorite—Wesley has never earned his father’s love or loyalty.

The narrator of the novel, David, feels conflicted about whether or not he should “rat his uncle out.” He loves Marie deeply, and hates his Uncle Frank for what he did, but cannot let go of the fact that Frank is family. Tellingly, when David is grown, one memory from his childhood stands out—he remembers playing football with Marie and her boyfriend, Ronnie Tall Bear, and feeling as though the three of them together made a “real family” that wasn’t defined by the obligations of blood but rather ties of affection. The book therefore asks what defines a family—is it biological? Should familial love and loyalty truly be unconditional? In many ways the book serves as an account of how an irrational commitment to biological and familial ties can be destructive. But it also maintains that “family” is something individuals can define for themselves—no one is bound to any one definition of family. In fact, the novella portrays the decisions a person makes about what “family” means to them as fundamental to their growth and identity.

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Family and Loyalty ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Family and Loyalty appears in each chapter of Montana 1948. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Family and Loyalty Quotes in Montana 1948

Below you will find the important quotes in Montana 1948 related to the theme of Family and Loyalty.
Prologue Quotes

A story that is now only mine to tell. I may not be the only witness left—there might still be someone in that small Montana town who remembers the events as well as I, but no one knew all three of these people better. And no one loved them more.

Related Characters: David Hayden (speaker), Wesley Hayden, Gail Hayden, Marie Little Soldier
Page Number: xvi
Explanation and Analysis:

In the Prologue to the novel, David Hayden lays out the plan of the book in clear, lucid terms. David was a child during the events he's going to tell us about, and now he's an adult--so his recollections of the events might be imperfect. Nevertheless, David feels a need to tell his story again: the story concerns people he loved dearly, and so by telling his story, he'll be honoring their memory. 

David is an important character in the novel because he's both an active participant in and a passive observer of the events. His main duty is to record the past--as a historian, he'll examine the evidence, in the process uncovering some information that certain people might like to forget. David suggests that the story is "his," not only because of his proximity to the people involved, but because he loved the people involved.


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Chapter 1 Quotes

The sheriff of Mercer County was elected, but such was my grandfather’s popularity and influence—and the weight of the Hayden name—that it was enough for my grandfather to say…now I want my son to have this job…It would never have occurred to my father to refuse.

Related Characters: David Hayden (speaker), Wesley Hayden, Grandpa Hayden (Julian)
Page Number: 9
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, David explains that his family is, essentially, Montana royalty. David's grandfather, Julian Hayden, is a well-known figure, prosperous and well-respected. As a result, David's father, Wesley, has a lot to live up to: he wants to impress his father and honor the Hayden name. Thus, when Julian pulls some strings to ensure that Wesley will become the next sheriff, Wesley has to accept: he doesn't want to disappoint his dad.

The passage shows the first hints of corruption in town. For now, the corruption is pretty "standard," just some "good ole boy" nepotism (a father getting his son a good job, but potentially ousting others who were more qualified). And yet the passage shows signs of a tension in the Hayden family: Wesley is loyal and indebted to his family, but he also seems to resent his father telling him what to do at all times. Deliberately, Watson doesn't tell us right away what the crime in Montana was--he leaves us to guess. For now, it seems possible that the crime might have had something to do with Wesley and his father.

I was beginning already to think of Uncle Frank as a criminal…Charming, affable Uncle Frank was gone for good.

Related Characters: David Hayden (speaker), Frank Hayden
Page Number: 38
Explanation and Analysis:

David begins to believe what his mother has been saying about Frank: that he's a molester of his patients, abusing his relationship with Native Americans. It's worth noting how quickly David changes his mind about Frank--it happens almost immediately. David isn't quite old enough to understand the nature of Frank's sexual improprieties (he barely understands his own sexuality, much less his uncle's), but merely witnessing his parents' fraught exchange about Frank has already changed the image of "Uncle Frank" in David's mind forever. The old idea of the "charming, affable Uncle Frank" whom David was unquestionably loyal to was a kind of innocence for David, and once that innocence has been lost--even if it turns out that the charges against Frank are baseless--it can never be wholly gotten back.

He was not only her husband, he was a brother…brother to a pervert!

Related Characters: David Hayden (speaker), Wesley Hayden, Gail Hayden, Frank Hayden
Page Number: 41
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, David becomes aware of his father's resemblance to Uncle Frank--a man David now suddenly regards as a sexual pervert. David notices that his father is calmly eating a piece of pie--a strange behavior, considering how recently he found out about Marie's molestation. Furthermore, David is disgusted by Wesley's resemblance to Frank, and suddenly finds it impossible to look his father in the face.

The passage is interesting because it shows David adopting an instinctive moral pose. He seems to be judging his father for acting so casually--suggesting that David has matured almost overnight because of the incident with Frank. Furthermore, while David's response to his father's resemblance to Frank is a little immature, it brings up a serious point: should we ever be judged for our family's actions? Intuitively, it seems, the answer is no: Wesley might look like Frank, but he's not responsible for Frank's sins in any way. Wesley's actions, however--trying to downplay the accusations against Frank, and (at this point) seemingly choosing family loyalty over unbiased justice--are worth judging.

Chapter 2 Quotes

He had long since stopped being my father. He was now my interrogator, my cross-examiner. The Sheriff. My Uncle’s brother.

Related Characters: David Hayden (speaker), Wesley Hayden, Frank Hayden
Page Number: 89
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, David explains to his parents that he’s seen Frank walking to and from the house the previous afternoon. Wesley is very curious about David’s story: he asks David lots of questions about when, exactly, Frank was walking around the house, and what he looked like. As David answers his father’s questions, he can feel his father transforming into a different kind of person altogether. Wesley isn’t acting fatherly at all: on the contrary, he’s acting like a sheriff—deliberate, sharp, serious, etc. David also notes that Wesley is acting like Frank’s brother. The big question in the second half of the book is whether or not Wesley is capable of being sheriff and Frank’s brother (and David's father, as David himself is now involved) at the same time—how to parse out the different parts of his identity, weighing loyalty against justice, family against the law.

Chapter 3 Quotes

I suddenly felt sorry for my father—not as he stood before me at that moment, but as a boy. What must it have been like to have a father capable of speaking to you like that?

Related Characters: David Hayden (speaker), Wesley Hayden, Grandpa Hayden (Julian)
Page Number: 108
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, Wesley faces his parents’ fury when he suggests that their son is a molester, and should be in jail for his crimes. Here, Wesley’s father, Julian, yells at him, furious that Wesley is attacking Julian’s favorite son, Frank. David is sorry that Wesley had to grow up in a house in which Julian was such a harsh, prejudiced master: Wesley must have endured a lot of verbal abuse over the years.

The passage shows that David is becoming more mature: he’s beginning to put himself in other people’s shoes and see the world from their point of view. By recognizing that even his father used to be a child, David asserts his own wisdom, and ceases to be a child himself.

“Screwing an Indian. Or feeling her up or whatever. You don’t lock up a man for that. You don’t lock up your brother. A respected man. A war hero.”

Related Characters: Grandpa Hayden (Julian) (speaker), Wesley Hayden, Frank Hayden
Page Number: 112
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, David eavesdrops on his grandfather Julian as he verbally abuses Wesley, David’s father. Wesley is suggesting to Julian that Frank—who’s always been the favorite child—should be sent to prison for molesting his Native American patients. Julian doesn’t deny that Frank has molested some Native American women; he simply says that such actions aren’t really crimes at all.

Put bluntly: Julian is an openly racist character—someone who doesn’t consider Native Americans “real” Americans, or even real humans, deserving of basic dignity and rights. Thus, he lashes out at Wesley for suggesting that Frank is anything other than a great man. Julian argues that Wesley shouldn’t arrest his own brother—and yet Frank, in spite of being Wesley’s brother, is a vile criminal, and deserves to be locked up. One wonders how much of Wesley’s motivation for arresting his brother is an abstract respect for the law and how much is his desire to assert his independence from his own family and his overbearing, racist father.

But our name was no joke. We were as close as Mercer County came to aristocracy. I never consciously traded on the Hayden name, yet I knew it gave me a measure of respect that I didn’t have to earn.

Related Characters: David Hayden (speaker)
Page Number: 119
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, David thinks about his status as a Hayden. For his entire life, David has had a measure of respect among his peers and community, simply because of his last name. David’s grandfather, Julian, is a famous man, well-respected throughout Mercer County and beyond. Therefore, the rest of Julian’s family is considered to be highly respectable and trustworthy, David included. At its best, the Hayden family is a mandate to be great: Wesley and Frank had a lot to live up to growing up, and the greatness of their father gave them their own aspirations of greatness. And yet the Hayden family name has its dark side: it allows certain members of the Hayden family, such as Frank, to get away with crimes without punishment. Frank molests Native Americans for years without punishment, confident that if he’s ever caught, he’ll get off scot-free because of his father. Frank’s cynical confidence in his own privilege mirrors the social privilege that allowed white people throughout the American West to exploit Native Americans with impunity.

“He’s guilty as sin, Gail. He told me as much…Goddamn it! What could I have been thinking of? Maybe a jury will cut him loose. I won’t. By God, I won’t.”

Related Characters: Wesley Hayden (speaker), Gail Hayden, Frank Hayden
Page Number: 143
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Wesley spells out some of the consequences of arresting his brother for the murder of Marie. Frank has most definitely killed Marie—he admitted it to Wesley moments before. Now, Wesley is prepared to arrest Frank for his murder, in spite of the fact that they’re brothers. Wesley recognizes that it seems unjust to punish one’s own family so harshly, and yet he also recognizes his duties as the sheriff of the community.

It’s important to note that Wesley’s philosophy of justice, and that of the townspeople, reverses 180 degrees here. Previously, it has seemed that Wesley might pardon Frank for his actions, acting out of brotherly loyalty and respect for the Hayden name. Now, however, it’s clear that Wesley will enact justice “by the book,” while the jury might clear Frank out of respect for the Hayden name. As Wesley investigates Frank’s crimes further and further, his commitment to justice becomes more intense.

Epilogue Quotes

I wondered again how it could have happened—how it could be that those two people who only wanted to do right, whose only error lay in trying to be loyal to both family and justice, were now dispossessed, the ones forced to leave Bentrock and build new lives.

Related Characters: David Hayden (speaker), Wesley Hayden, Gail Hayden
Page Number: 163
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, we learn that David’s parents, Gail and Wesley, are essentially forced to move away from Montana after Uncle Frank’s suicide. Wesley never speaks to Julian again, and his role in Frank’s suicide makes his continued existence as sheriff in Montana impossible. Thus, David is forced to watch as his beloved parents pack up and leave their house, taking David with them. David is mature enough to recognize the injustice here; even though Gail and Wesley were only trying to do right, while Julian was trying to conceal a racist murderer’s crimes, it’s Wesley and Gail who have to move, and Julian who remains in his position of power.

This injustice within the Hayden family then highlights the regular plight of Native Americans, for whom this kind of thing happens all the time on an institutional as well as individual level. Indeed, it's suggested that nothing changes in the status quo of Mercer County after all this--Julian, along with his racist ideals and white community support, remains in power, and the Native Americans who were molested (and killed, in Marie's case) by Frank don't even receive the comfort of having their suffering acknowledged.

I believe I remembered the incident so fondly not only because I was with Marie and Ronnie, both of whom I loved in my way, but also because I felt, for that brief span, as though I was part of a family, a family that accepted me for myself and not my blood or birthright.

Related Characters: David Hayden (speaker), Marie Little Soldier, Ronnie Tall Bear
Page Number: 167
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, David answers a strongly implied question in the novel: what other options are there in place of literal, biological family? Wesley’s family is in ruins, since his brother, Frank, has turned out to be a molester and murderer of Native American women, and has committed suicide when confronted with his crimes. Furthermore, Wesley's father has essentially banished Wesley from Montana, and never speaks to him again. Here, though, David suggests that it’s possible to make one’s own family connections—not a family based on blood, but one built around human connection and love. David isn’t literally related to Ronnie or Marie, but he feels a close connection to them both, particularly in this singular moment that stays with him forever. Perhaps it’s intimate, voluntary connections, not the solemn traditions of a “family name,” that define a real family.