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 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.
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?
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.
“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?”
I was beginning already to think of Uncle Frank as a criminal…Charming, affable Uncle Frank was gone for good.
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.
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.