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.
Family and Loyalty ThemeTracker
Family and Loyalty Quotes in Montana 1948
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.
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.
I was beginning already to think of Uncle Frank as a criminal…Charming, affable Uncle Frank was gone for good.
He was not only her husband, he was a brother…brother to a pervert!
He had long since stopped being my father. He was now my interrogator, my cross-examiner. The Sheriff. My Uncle’s brother.
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?
“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.”
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.
“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.”
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.
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.