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.
Growing Up ThemeTracker
Growing Up 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 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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
He had long since stopped being my father. He was now my interrogator, my cross-examiner. The Sheriff. My Uncle’s brother.
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.
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?
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.
I find history endlessly amusing, knowing, as I do, that the record of any human community might omit stories of sexual abuse, murder, suicide.
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.