Montana 1948

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Growing Up Theme Analysis

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.
Growing Up Theme Icon

The narrator of Montana 1948, David Hayden, often describes the events in the summer of 1948 as events that wrenched him out of the innocence and obliviousness of childhood. The novella is therefore wrapped up in a coming of age narrative. Several elements of his coming of age are present throughout his recollection of the story. The first of these is David’s increasing sexual awareness. David is 12 years old when the events of the story take place. He is experiencing a kind of sexual longing for the first time (for Marie, for certain classmates, for his Aunt Gloria)—these urges, because he does not understand them, inspire guilt and fear in him. This kind of dynamic is a highly common trope in coming of age narratives.

David also experiences an increasing awareness of human fallibility and evil. Like many coming of age fictions, the novella depicts the disruption of a childhood belief in the infallibility and upstanding moral character of adults. David’s heroic Uncle Frank is revealed to be a hateful bigot who abuses women and murders Marie. Wesley’s job as sheriff turns out to be a position fraught with moral conflict and tragedy—before the events of the summer of 1948 David imagines his dad’s job is dull, and wishes his dad was more like the sheriffs on TV. David also sees how racism affects everyone living in his community—he realizes his father’s distaste for Native Americans, he realizes the injustices Native Americans face daily, and he ultimately recognizes prejudice even in people he deeply admires. He eventually understands his parents have weaknesses, and that the mere presence of his mother or father does not make him safe. He often finds himself comforting Gail—this role reversal impresses upon him the essential humanity of his parents. His naïve belief that his parents are invincible and will always be able to protect him is shattered.

There is also the general sense in the novel that things can never be the same again, that some changes are inevitable and permanent. As David leaves his childhood behind—both literally, when they move from the house, and figuratively—he repeatedly acknowledges a feeling that he will never be able to go back. This is yet another classic figuring of a coming of age story: David realizes that childhood is only temporary, and that time is always moving forward.

The coming of age theme in the novel serves to articulate the narrator’s coming to terms with new responsibilities and unpleasant realities. It is perhaps fitting that a story about postwar America is told via a coming of age narrative. The Second World War was a time when certain realities—human capacity for evil and atrocity, the horror and threat of new military technological advancements, among others—came sharply to light. In some ways we can imagine that as our narrator David is coming of age in 1948, the US is going through a similar kind of development, maturing out of a kind of innocence and grappling with new and unfamiliar questions.

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Growing Up ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in Montana 1948 related to the theme of Growing Up.
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 harshness of the land and the flattening effect of wind and sky probably accounted for the relative tranquility of Mercer County. Life was simply too hard…nothing was left over for raising hell or making trouble.

Related Characters: David Hayden (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Wind
Page Number: 4
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, David immediately draws a connection between the people of Mercer County, Montana, and the natural world. The environment itself is harsh and desolate--there's not much around but wind and dust. Humans have had to fight a long battle with the natural world in order to build civilization in this part of Montana. Such a battle is so long and difficult that there's not much time left over for "mischief." In other words, Mercer County is a calm, tranquil place because everyone works so hard just to get by.

The passage is suspenseful, even theatrical, because it immediately suggests that there was, in fact, some "trouble" in Montana--and that's what David is going to tell us about. And yet, as David will show, much of the "trouble" in Mercer County took place in secret, beneath this facade of tranquility and hard work. As David matures, he'll become more aware of the secret evils taking place in his beloved hometown.

As long as my father was going to be a sheriff, a position with so much potential for excitement, danger, and bravery, why couldn’t some of that promise be fulfilled?

Related Characters: David Hayden (speaker), Wesley Hayden
Page Number: 5
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, we're introduced to Wesley Hayden, David's father. Wesley isn't at all like the stereotypical sheriffs David has met in "cowboy and Indian" Westerns--on the contrary, he's polite, laid back, and generally mild-mannered. In this, Wesley seems to be a disappointment his son: David wants a father who fights heroic battles and arrests lots of criminals.

In short, David is bored. He wishes that his life in Montana were a little more interesting--as far as he can tell, nothing of any importance happens anywhere nearby. As David learns more about his community, though, he'll come to realize that there is, in fact, a great deal of crime going on beneath the surface--and furthermore, he'll come to see how childish and narrow-minded his longings for violence and crime (and his ideas about heroism) were all along.

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 the water, that college was not for Indians.

Related Characters: David Hayden (speaker), Ronnie Tall Bear
Page Number: 14
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, David mentions some of the racism and bigotry inherent in Montana society in the 1940s. David knew of a young Native American man named Ronnie Tall Bear, who was an exceptionally gifted athlete. Ronnie would have made a fine athlete at any number of great colleges--and yet, David recalls, Ronnie never attended a college. At the time, David didn't think too deeply about why Ronnie never went to college; he just accepted that college wasn't a place for Native Americans like Ronnie. Now, it seems perfectly obvious to question why Ronnie would never have been allowed in a college--and to see the unwritten racist rules of higher education and society itself. Thus, the passage conveys the extent of the apartheid state in America in the 1940s: certain races and ethnicities simply weren't treated fairly.

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.

Chapter 2 Quotes

Had I any sensitivity at all I might have recognized that all this talk about wind and dirt and mountains and childhood was my mother’s way of saying she wanted a few moments of purity, a temporary escape from the sordid drama that was playing itself out in her own house. But I was on the trail of something that would lead me out of childhood.

Related Characters: David Hayden (speaker), Gail Hayden
Related Symbols: The Wind
Page Number: 56
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, David spends some time with his mother, Gail. Gail is very careful when talking to David about the incident with Frank and Marie: she mentions to him that it’s “possible” that there will be “trouble” in the future, but gives almost no other details about the matter. In such a way, Gail does her son the courtesy of keeping him informed, but holds back on the more unsavory details of her brother-in-law's possible acts of molestation. Instead, she speaks in a metaphorical way about the wind--a constant factor of the landscape, and a symbol of both harshness and potential change.

In all, the passage shows the divide between David and Gail at this point in David's maturity: David is so concerned with figuring out more information about Frank’s crimes that he is unable to understand his mother's feelings. He wants to know more, while Gail wants an escape from the horrible things that are coming to light around her.

Looking in the dead bird’s eye, I realized that these strange, unthought-of connections—sex and death, lust and violence, desire and degradation—are there, there, deep in even a good heart’s chambers.

Related Characters: David Hayden (speaker)
Page Number: 73
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, David is walking around outside, shooting off ammunition. He fires at a bird, killing it immediately. As David looks at the dead animal on the ground, he’s deeply moved, and he feels guilty for resorting to shooting to help himself feel better. As he stares into the bird’s eyes, he comes to realize that all people have the capacity to do evil: David, who’s just killed a bird for no reason; Frank, who molests women; and perhaps even Wesley. Even in a "good heart's chambers" lies the potential for death and sadism, for a particularly sexual kind of violence.

The passage is a key turning-point in David’s coming-of-age, because it shows David becoming more cautious in his investigation of Frank’s crimes. He’s no longer desperate for information at any cost—on the contrary, he beginning to realize the full extent of his uncle’s crimes. Furthermore, he’s beginning to think all people are capable of committing crimes, whether or not they actually do. Realizing one’s own capacity for evil is a key mark of maturity, Watson suggests.

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.

I imagined all the Indians of our region, from town, ranches, or reservation, gathered on top of Circle Hill to do something about Marie’s death. But in my vision, the Indians were not lined up in battle formation as they always were in movies, that is, mounted on war ponies, streaked with war paint…Instead, just as I did in my daily life I saw them dressed in their jeans and cowboy boots, their cotton print dresses, or their flannel shirts.

Related Characters: David Hayden (speaker), Marie Little Soldier
Page Number: 93
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, David thinks about the death of Marie Little Soldier—a death that may have been caused by Frank. David has a feverish nightmare in which he imagines Marie Little Soldier’s fellow Native Americans preparing for vengeance. Although David is used to thinking of Native Americans dressed up in war paint, preparing for a charge—as in typical Western movies—in the dream he instead thinks of them dressed in civilian clothes.

It’s important to notice that David imagines the Native Americans in a more peaceful, and yet still highly Americanized pose. As he learns more about his Uncle Frank, David seems to be making a subconscious effort to treat Native Americans as human beings, rather than Hollywood caricatures. This dream shows Native Americans as still subject to white American racism--they're dressed in the clothing of the culture that oppresses them--but also as powerful figures in their own right. People don't need to fight bloody, exciting battles to be heroes; they can be heroic just by standing up, as normal people, for what is right.

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.

A murderer may have been locked up a floor below and the molecules of his victim’s dying breath still floating in the air, yet these were not strong enough finally to stand up to my boy’s hunger for chocolate cake.

Related Characters: David Hayden (speaker), Marie Little Soldier, Frank Hayden
Page Number: 115
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, we’re reminded that David is still a young boy. He’s learned a lot of disturbing stuff about his family recently, and yet he’s still a fairly immature 12-year-old kid who likes cake. Wesley brings home some chocolate cake the afternoon after his argument with Grandpa Julian, perhaps to take care of David and reassure him that everything is going to be okay. Wesley’s kindness to his son contrasts markedly with Julian’s cruelty toward his own child, Wesley. Wesley seems to have learned how to be a good father by doing exactly the opposite of what Julian did to him.

You see, I knew—I knew! I knew! —that Uncle Frank’s suicide had solved all our problems.

Related Characters: David Hayden (speaker), Frank Hayden
Page Number: 155
Explanation and Analysis:

At the end of Chapter 3, Uncle Frank, imprisoned in the basement of the house, slits his own wrists with broken glass jars, ending his own life. Frank doesn’t want to be humiliated in public for his acts of molestation, and perhaps he finally feels some guilt for his crimes—we never know. David thinks that Uncle Frank’s suicide will end the family dispute: Frank will never be taken to court, never tried for his actions, and never tarnish the family name or unfairly escape justice.

Of course, it’s important to take David’s words with a grain of salt. Frank’s suicide does not end the family’s problems at all; it just starts some new problems. Frank’s death will always be a black mark on the family history; furthermore, we’re given every reason to believe that Julian will blame Wesley for his favorite son’s death: Frank will be a martyr from now on. David is still an immature kid, naively confident that Frank's "disappearance" suddenly solves everything.

Epilogue Quotes

I find history endlessly amusing, knowing, as I do, that the record of any human community might omit stories of sexual abuse, murder, suicide.

Related Characters: David Hayden (speaker)
Page Number: 164
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, we learn that David grows up to be a successful history teacher. He teaches his students what the books tell him to, but inside he knows that this must not ever be the whole story--his experiences as a child (those related in the novel itself) have taught him as much. Because Frank's suicide was ultimately ruled an accident, and his crimes of rape and murder were never investigated, all these events were essentially erased from history (except, of course, the history related in David's writing). Thus David has personal experience with the way history is inherently biased and incomplete, constantly being told and revised by the "victors"--those in power who want to cover up their crimes and erase the suffering of their victims.

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.