The town of Bentrock, Montana (located in Mercer County) in 1948 has a population of less than one thousand people. It is bordered on the west by the Fort Warren Indian reservation, a piece of land that is barely farmable and basically worthless and inhabited by members of the Sioux tribe. The roads are unpaved and the climate is difficult—residents must deal with extreme changes in temperature and never-ending wind. David guesses that the harsh and demanding climate keeps people so busy they can rarely find time to make trouble—this is why Mercer county is so peaceful.
We can glean right away that the inequality built into the fabric of this small-town society—the Sioux are relegated to some of the worst land in the state. This fact is almost glossed over, however, suggesting the degree to which the young David doesn’t question why the Sioux land is so bad. David mentions that the residents of Bentrock endure difficult weather conditions—which, while true, is ironically positioned in this section, following as it does the mention of the poverty on the reservations. Tellingly this narration refers to Mercer County as “peaceful”: in this way, the author David is embodying and communicating young David’s naiveté about the reality of his town.
The relief over the end of World War II is still palpable in Mercer county. Many men had been in combat—though not David’s father Wesley, who has a bum leg due to a kick from a horse—and now they only want to settle in with their families and tend their farms.
Again the picture being painted is one that will be systemically torn down by the events of the story: this postwar small town America is not nearly as idyllic as it seems, and its war heroes are not so heroic.
This tranquility makes for easy work for Wesley Hayden, who is the Mercer County sheriff. As a general rule, being the Sheriff of Mercer county doesn’t require great strength or courage. Young David is disappointed in this fact, and wishes his father’s job were more exciting. He notes that his father doesn’t even look like a western sheriff. He wears a shirt and tie and does not wear boots or a cowboy hat. He owns a small Italian made handgun but never carries it—which is just as well, David thinks, considering the gun is puny and doesn’t look the part. David’s toy guns look more real to him.
David’s childish desires and expectations come to the foreground—he finds his father’s job boring and undemanding: his father doesn’t even need to carry a gun. For David the absence of old-western style violence means an absence of excitement and challenge altogether. His sense of the world is shaped by entertainment and toys. He is still a child, but his innocence will not last much longer
Wesley does not meet David’s standards in this way, but he also fails to meet his wife Gail’s standards. Wesley has a degree from the University of North Dakota Law School, and has passed both the North Dakota and Montana state bar examinations. David’s mother believes his father should move out of Montana and practice law instead of being a sheriff—not because law is a “safer” profession, but because this is the only way she believes Wesley can be “fully himself.”
The question of identity is raised: we learn that Gail and Wesley construct identity differently. Gail believes Wesley’s profession prevents him from being his “true” self, and Wesley has clearly resisted her. The book will continue to wonder about what makes (or breaks) a person’s identity and sense of self. The difference between lawyer and sheriff also calls attention to the difference between law and justice.
David tries to explain his mother’s thinking. Grandpa Julian Hayden (Wesley’s father) had once been Sheriff of Mercer county for many terms, along with his deputy, Len McAuley. (David, as an adult, wonders why his grandfather wanted to be sheriff. He concludes it is because his grandfather wanted and needed power.) When Grandpa Hayden finally retired, he turned the post over to Wesley, keeping the Hayden name in office. This is why Wesley is trying, as David puts it, to “turn two ways at once.” Grandpa Hayden wants him to be a Hayden, and Gail wants him to simply be himself—something that is impossible in Grandpa Hayden’s presence.
Wesley, it is revealed, is torn between two loyalties. His father wants him to keep the Hayden name in office, but his wife (ostensibly for his sake) wishes he could move away from Grandpa Hayden, so that he no longer felt the pressure of his name. Grandpa’s corruption is also hinted at in this section. His desire to keep one family in charge is anti-democratic and betrays a love of power and prestige over a love of law. Wesley’s desires are notably absent from this description—his decision-making is entirely informed by the wants of his family.
Another reason David’s mother wants them to leave Montana is that she fears for her son’s development. David does not enjoy or understand living in a community—the rules and requirements intimidate him, and he prefers to be out in the countryside alone. He flees the town and its laws and regulations as often as possible, and Gail worries this is stunting his personal and social growth. But David is happy here—he rides his horse, Nutty, and goes fishing, hiking and hunting. He feels that out in the country is the only place where he can be his true self, free of the pressures of human society.
David’s isolation worries his mother because it is perhaps inhibiting his growth. This is yet another ironic kind of gesture—by the end of this story, the idea that the countryside could protect David from the realities of adulthood is almost laughable. David’s childhood naiveté is accompanied by a kind of naiveté on the part of his mother, who will eventually realize nothing can prevent David from growing up. The realities of the external world will find him even in his isolation.
David’s mother works as a secretary, so they have hired a housekeeper, a Sioux woman named Marie Little Soldier. She is a large, beautiful woman with a big personality to match, who likes to tell tall tales and jokes. David loves her (in a 12-year-old’s chaste way) because she is beautiful and unconventional, and because she cares for him.
David’s love for Marie exists on a kind of boundary: he believes he is “in love” with her but he is in fact recognizing and appreciating that Marie takes care of him, that she is like family. David’s sexuality is just starting to emerge, but he is still a boy. Note also how he loves Marie unreservedly, without any sense of prejudice, and focuses on her personality. Many of the older white characters don’t see Marie as a “person” in this way.
Marie has a boyfriend named Ronnie Tall Bear, whom David worships. Ronnie is perhaps the most accomplished athlete to ever graduate from Bentrock high school and was a star in every sport he tried. Young David never wonders, as a child, why Ronnie does not go to a top-notch school on a football scholarship—he simply accepts that “college is not for Indians.” As an adult however, David understands Ronnie could never have been accepted to college as a Native American in 1948.
David is blissfully unaware, as a child, of the injustices that Native Americans like Ronnie face. Though he admires and even “worships” Ronnie for his athletic prowess, he does not question it when Ronnie does not go to college. It is not until he is an adult that he recognizes prejudice for what it was—and Ronnie’s story takes on a darker and more complicated quality.
Marie stays in a servant’s room on the ground floor of the house, even though there is a spare bedroom upstairs. One day David passes the door and hears horrible coughing. When Gail returns for her lunch break, David tells her he thinks Marie is sick. Gail is alarmed and investigates, quickly determining that Marie has a fever. Marie is only wearing a nightgown, and David is reminded of the time he accidentally saw her naked getting out of the shower. Gail gives Marie extra blankets and tells her to stay in bed until evening, when they can ask Dr. Hayden (Wesley’s brother) to come over. Marie protests, saying she doesn’t need a doctor, but Gail ignores her and tells David to keep an eye on her.
Though David and the rest of the family love Marie in an almost familial way, she is still made to sleep in a servant’s room—presumably because custom dictates Native American servants do so. Though she is “like” family, her race and position prevent her from being treated as such. Marie’s sickness brings out certain dynamics in the house: David is made uncomfortable, but also intrigued, by Marie’s exposed state. His mother treats Marie like a child, ignoring her wishes and insisting on care.
David checks in on Marie frequently. She sleeps fitfully and mumbles deliriously. Once she calls David in and makes him promise to keep the doctor away from her. David protests that it’s just his Uncle Frank. Marie coughs violently and David rubs her back and feels that she is shaking all over. When he promises to keep Frank away, she seems to relax.
Marie’s weakness and fear begins to hint at the terrible reality (one of racial prejudice and abuse) lurking under the picturesque surface in Bentrock. The reader can begin to see that Frank is not “just” Uncle Frank—there’s something more to his identity.
When David’s parents return home his father remarks that David is “babysitting the babysitter.” This is the first time David realizes Marie was hired in part to look after him, not simply to clean and cook. Gail goes to check on Marie, and then tells Wesley he better call Frank, as Marie’s fever has worsened. David insists that Marie doesn’t want to see a doctor, but his father dismissively responds that it’s only “Indian superstition.”
Marie’s sickness reveals the first of many realities to David—that she cares for him not only out of generosity but also out of necessity—it is her job to do so. Once again Marie’s insistence about Frank is ignored, this time by Wesley, who dismisses her because of prejudice. He will not take her worries seriously because he believes she is a ‘superstitious Indian.”
David first learned of his father’s racism when he was about seven or eight. He received moccasins as a birthday gift from some extended family member and Wesley had refused to let him wear them, complaining they’d make him “flat-footed and lazy as an Indian.” David admits his father was not as hate filled as other bigots—in fact Wesley probably never considered himself prejudiced—but he held Native Americans in low regard and believed they were, with very few exceptions, lazy, superstitious, and irresponsible. David, when he is grown, puts on a pair of moccasins every day after work, as a small act of defiance.
Wesley is for the most part a good man—but the book emphasizes that even good, small town Americans are capable of certain evils. Part of David’s journey to adulthood involves reconciling his love and respect for his father with his father’s bigotry—which was undeniable, even if it was comparatively mild. His adult rebellion (in the form of wearing moccasins) demonstrates that he continues to grapple with these realities even as a grown-up.
Wesley gets on the phone immediately. David hears has father tell his Aunt Gloria to put Frank on the phone. Gloria is one of the prettiest women David has ever seen—and though she and Frank have been married over five years, they have no children. David has heard his grandfather ask Frank if Gloria cannot have kids because “the chute is too tight.”
David’s budding sexuality is evident in his feelings for Gloria—whom he recognizes is attractive. But the innocence and youthfulness of this crush is especially evident when it is introduced alongside complex marital troubles and the crass and cruel humor of Grandpa Hayden
Wesley tells Frank that Marie is sick, and warns him she does not want to be treated by him. Frank asks why and Wesley says he doubts she’s ever been seen by a “real” doctor. When he hangs up he jokingly tells Gail that Frank has agreed to do a little dance around the bed and bang on some drums—Gail doesn’t laugh and goes back to be with Marie.
Wesley and Frank bond over their mutual disdain for Native American beliefs and traditions—a trait that seems to have been passed down though the family. Gail’s displeasure is evident. She clearly cares more for Marie than she does for Frank.
When Frank arrives David is struck by how handsome and charismatic he is. He feels sorry for his father, who seems to him a less attractive and less impressive version of Frank, who was a star athlete in high school and a heroic doctor in WWII. Wesley is dull in comparison to Frank, who is favored by everyone in town including Grandpa Hayden, who sometimes speaks of Frank as though he is his only son. David remembers Grandpa Hayden giving a speech at a town celebration, praising Frank’s wartime accomplishments while Wesley limped around picking up litter.
The complicated dynamic between the Hayden boys and their father is fleshed out. Frank’s charisma, his accomplishments, his local fame—these all make him “more impressive” in David’s young eyes. David even feels sympathy, almost pity, for his somehow inferior father. Grandpa Hayden’s favoritism is also made evident. He has chosen Frank over Wesley before and will (as the reader will eventually discover) do so again.
Uncle Frank asks for a drink and Wesley offers him some of Ole Norgaard’s homebrewed beer. Frank says he might have some after he treats Marie. Frank goes into Marie’s room and shuts the door behind him. Almost immediately Marie begins screaming for Gail. Gail goes to knock on the door ask asks if everything is okay. Frank tells her, with disgust in his voice, that Marie insists Gail stay in the room.
The gravity of the situation becomes increasingly clear. Marie’s screams elicit disgust from Frank, disinterest from Wesley (who is more interested in promoting Norgaard’s beer), and concern from Gail. The family begins to split apart even in this early moment, foreshadowing the more dramatic fractures to come.
Wesley tells David to come wait outside on the porch. They hear muffled shouts of “no” coming from Marie’s room. Wesley ignores them. Finally Frank comes out and asks Wesley for a beer. Wesley leaves and David notices he feels uncomfortable alone with Uncle Frank. When Wesley returns he asks Frank why Marie had been upset. Frank says it’s just because she’s used to being treated by a “medicine man.” Wesley remarks that Native Americans will never make it in the 20th century unless they give up their old fashioned superstitions. Frank agrees, and says Marie might have pneumonia.
David’s discomfort around Frank suggests that he has already started to rethink Frank’s identity. Frank’s status and prestige no longer impress David, who is suddenly fearful of his uncle. Wesley remains unflinchingly on his brother’s side, sharing a beer and gossiping about Marie and her (in their opinion) inferior worldview. Once again their racism against Native Americans is apparent and, in Wesley’s case, makes him blind to what is going on.
Wesley asks if Marie should be in a hospital. Frank responds that Marie would probably never agree to go. At this moment Gail comes outside and confirms that Marie will be staying at home with them. David notices that his mother seems angry. Though she has never been a huge fan of Uncle Frank, she has never seemed blatantly hostile towards him, as she does now. Frank puts down his unfinished beer and makes an excuse to leave.
David is perceptive enough to notice that his mother is unusually unhappy with Uncle Frank. Uncle Frank’s quickness to leave suggests that he has an idea why Gail is angry—his guilt is already being hinted at. Again we can see Wesley at the center of a familial conflict—his wife is against Frank and he is with him (at least for now).
Gail tells David to go into the house. Instead of doing so, he tracks around the side of the house so he can eavesdrop on his parents’ conversation—he remarks that if he hadn’t done this, perhaps his childhood would have lasted longer. He hears his mother take a deep breath and tell his father what Marie has told her: that Uncle Frank has been molesting Native American girls—his patients—for years.
David here makes one of several decisions that apparently bring his childhood to an end. But the idea that David’s innocence could have endured this conflict—that he could have remained blissfully unaware—is perhaps a childish notion in and of itself. Frank’s crime is finally revealed, exposing the bigotry and abuse he conceals under his charm and social status.
Wesley paces and asks Gail if she believes Marie. She asks him why Marie would lie about something like this. Wesley suggests she might be confused because she doesn’t know enough about modern medicine. He ignores Gail’s protests and continues to rationalize in this way. Gail yells, and Wesley stops. Gail tells him Frank rapes these women, and makes them do demeaning things to themselves in the name of “medical treatment.” David is shocked at the sound of his mother’s voice pronouncing these words. David expects his father will yell or cry, but instead he asks Gail, “why are you telling me this?”
Wesley frantically tries to rationalize, presumably because Frank is brother, and he desperately wants this information to be untrue. Gail will not allow it though, and renders Frank’s crimes to Wesley in harsh language. This startles David, whose conception of his mother is challenged by her use of these words. Wesley’s response is strange, even to David, who expects that he will respond more emotionally to this news.
Gail doesn’t understand the question. Wesley asks if she’s telling him because he is Frank’s brother, because he is her husband, because he is Marie’s employer, or because he is the sheriff. Gail says “I’m just telling you.” They are quiet for some time, and then Wesley asks if Marie has been a victim of Frank’s assault before. Gail says yes, but she hasn’t seen the worst of it. Wesley wonders if Marie will talk to him and Gail says she thinks so. Wesley claps his hands and gets up to go inside.
Wesley’s crisis of identity is explained. He cannot compute the information Gail is giving him unless he understands which Wesley she’s giving it to: should he act as a sheriff? As a brother? As a husband or employer? Gail is frustrated with the question—she believes Wesley is not defined by these categories. But Wesley feels he must choose one of these identities in order to act
David quickly runs back in the house so his parents won’t know he’s been eavesdropping. They say nothing to him and go straight to Marie’s room. While they are gone, David examines Uncle Frank’s fingerprints on his beer bottle. He realizes he is already beginning to think of Uncle Frank as a criminal—handsome, charming Uncle Frank is gone forever.
David is coming to terms with the malleable and shifting nature of identity himself—he inspects Frank’s fingerprints, a tellingly childish imitation of criminal investigation—we can imagine he learned about it on television. But he has grown in his understanding of Uncle Frank—who is more, and more sinister, than his charming exterior.
When Wesley and Gail leave Marie’s room they tell David that Marie is tired and needs rest. Wesley says he is going to talk to Len McAuley. The McAuleys are more like grandparents to David than David’s own grandparents—they take an interest in him and entertain him when he is around. Len and Wesley talk out on the lawn, and Daisy McAuley comes to sit with Gail in the kitchen. Both Wesley and Gail are trying to see if the McAuleys have ever heard anything about Frank. David hears Daisy telling his mother that there are rumors that he doesn’t “do everything on the up and up.” She clarifies: “just the squaws though.”
Wesley’s first move in his investigation is to talk to his deputy (who was also his father’s deputy) and ask Gail to talk to Daisy to gage how much gossip about Frank has already gotten out. This move highlights that Wesley’s job as sheriff involves social maneuvering. The way the law operates is affected by the small town politics in Bentrock. It turns out Daisy has already heard Frank has been abusing Native American patients—though she uses euphemistic language to say so (to prevent David from understanding, but also, we imagine, to avoid facing the reality herself).
Later that night, Gail goes in to check on Marie one more time. When she comes out she looks exhausted and frail. Wesley is eating some chocolate cake that Daisy brought over, and casually asks Gail how Marie is doing. Gail cannot believe he has an appetite after all that’s happened. David realizes she is seeing his father differently: not as her husband, but as a brother to a pervert, a brother to a man who abused his power and authority to take advantage of women. David knows this because he is seeing Wesley the same way—he can hardly stand to look at his father, because he sees Frank’s features on his dad’s face.
Wesley’s status as Frank’s brother, as a blood relative of a heinous, sexually abusive criminal, begins to dawn on both David and his mother. David is disgusted by his father’s resemblance to his uncle, and Gail lashes out as well. The book wonders about the meaning of biological relation. Does Wesley carry some of Frank’s evil and perversion in him simply because he is Frank’s brother and shares his blood? What do the actions of our family members say about us?
Wesley tells Gail he doesn’t want this all over town, reminding her that they have no proof of anything yet. David sees a familiar disagreement between them: his father, touting proof and evidence, his mother relying on feelings and faith. Gail notes that rumors have already started spreading, and Wesley clarifies that he doesn’t want it getting back to his father. David notes that in many ways Wesley had nothing left to praise God with because he used up all his faith and loyalty on his “earthly father,” Grandpa Hayden.
Where Gail is concerned with justice (and follows abstract ideals) Wesley is concerned with procedure, with law. Yet Wesley’s loyalty to law is perhaps also shield that lets him also be loyal to his father. The law is more complicated than justice. David’s remark about his father’s resistance to religion is telling: Wesley’s devotion to his biological family is almost dogmatic. Wilson, the novelist, is warning against such blind devotion to biological ties.
Gail emphatically asserts that David will never be treated by Frank again. David is nervous about being addressed, and hopes he doesn’t give away the fact that he’s been eavesdropping. Wesley tells Gail not to bring David into this. She asks him again why he won’t say he believes Marie. David expects his father to insist Marie is either confused or lying, but instead he says nothing. David realizes his father doesn’t doubt Frank’s guilt—he knows his brother as well as anyone, and he knows his brother has committed these crimes.
A troubling new fact comes to light—Wesley does not doubt Frank’s guilt. David must now contend not only with the reality of his Uncle’s crimes, but with his own father’s willful tolerance of those crimes. Wesley has been resisting action not because of doubt, but because of devotion to the “Hayden” name. David must comes to terms with the fact that his father is capable of such moral shortcoming.