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.
Identity Theme Icon

The novel often asks its reader to consider what determines a person’s identity. Is someone defined by their profession? Their familial position? Their successes or mistakes? Their race or culture? Or is there such a thing as “true” identity, some identity that exists independently of all of these things? Gail maintains that Wesley cannot be his “true” self while working as a sheriff, and wishes he would start practicing law instead. When his family talks to him, Wesley often wonders aloud whether they talk to him as a father, a brother, a sheriff, or something else.

David’s awareness of identity—and its ability to shift and change in different circumstances—is also growing throughout the novel. Before the summer of 1948, Uncle Frank was to David a “hero,” an “athlete,” and a “doctor.” After the events of the novel transpire, David can no longer think of him as any of these things: Frank is a sexual abuser, a criminal, a murderer. And even worse, his father becomes the brother of a murderer—a startling shift in identity that David struggles to accept.

During all of this, as well, David is growing into and constructing an identity of his own (See “Coming of Age”). The novella explores these questions about identity in order to outline all of the different ways “identity”—a seemingly stable or constant truth about a person—is in fact difficult to pin down, and is prone to dramatic shifts and changes.

Identity ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in Montana 1948 related to the theme of Identity.
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

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.

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.

“Are you telling me this because I’m Frank’s brother? Because I’m your husband? Because I’m Marie’s employer?...or because I’m the sheriff?”

Related Characters: Wesley Hayden (speaker), Gail Hayden, Marie Little Soldier, Frank Hayden
Page Number: 37
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Wesley becomes aware that his brother, Frank, may have been molesting Native American patients. Wesley's wife, Gail, has been talking to Marie Little Soldier, a Native American woman whom Frank may have molested recently. Wesley is at first reluctant to believe that his charismatic, heroic brother could be a criminal. He lashes out at Gail, asking her why she's telling him about his brother. He wonders if Gail is speaking to him as Frank's brother, the sheriff, Marie's boss, etc.

In short, the passage shows Wesley in the grips of an identity crisis. He isn't sure what he is: should he define himself by his profession, his father, his brother, etc.? By investigating his brother's indiscretions, Wesley will have to come to terms with family loyalty and unbiased justice, and he'll also learn to carve out an identity for himself.

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

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.

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.