Theme of Work in Montana 1948
After WWII, many soldiers returned home to a new world. As more and more females joined the workforce, the American identity shifted from a primarily male dominated society to an integrated society between men and women. The burdens of everyday life of females quickly expanded to more than just child care and cooking. In Montana 1948, this notion of work and duty within Bentrock reflects the American society. The ideals of this community demonstrates the powerful change after WWII while also exemplifying the social norms still intact. These norms included race and gender, especially in Bentrock, where a substantial Native American population was present. The idea of work and the meaning of labor reflected the ideals of this society, clarifying its social norms and some of its limitations on social acceptance and advancement.
Work in Bentrock is a form of power and authority over the community. As community leaders of the town, the grandfather and his deputy continue to switch positions as sheriff of the town. “When Grandfather’s term expired, his deputy, Len McAuley, would serve a term; after Len’s term, Grandfather would run again, and this way they kept the office in the proper hands.” This cycle of authority shows the enclosed nature of authority within Mercer County. As an oligarchical type of leadership, the power is only held between two people. Furthermore, the author uses “proper hands” to demonstrate the male presence of power during that time period. Additionally, the grandfather and McAuely take up this labor not to help the community itself, but also to establish their families in positions of power; indeed, within this narrative, work is a sign of honor as well as a sign of purposeful labor.
As a Native American, Ollie Young Bear is a respected member of the Indian community, and his work in many cases illuminates his social position. However, despite his accomplishments, his skin color still dictates his place in society. “Ollie Young Bear was also a war hero… the star pitcher on the Elk’s fast-pitch softball team… (though he probably could not have been admitted to the Elks as a member…” Even though Ollie fought in WWII and played softball, he is still not good enough to become an Elks member. His accomplishments can only get him so far because of the color of his skin. Ollie has a tense relationship with work because despite his best efforts he will never be able to be on the same level as the white men in the community. His work simply puts him at the top of the Native American community, but that community will always be at the bottom of the white community. Additionally, the author writes, “He married Doris Strickland, a white woman… and had two shy, polite children.” Ollie’s status within the community is boosted because he married a white woman. More importantly, the author uses “had” instead of other words such as “raised”. This diction reflects the notion of work because it shows that having children is a job. While hard work does get Ollie to some status, his background still dictates his role in society.
Taking on yet another social message, work in Bentrock exemplifies the changing role of women in society. The mother of the protagonist reflects this type of change. “The sight of my mother loading the shotgun was frightening – yes – but also oddly touching… it reminded me of what she looked like when she once put on a baseball glove and tried to play catch with me. I wanted to rush over to her, to help her, to relieve her of the awful duty she had taken up.” As women continued to stay in the workforce after WWII, a new form of family life was established. This new form of life was, like the mother, frightening and oddly touching. The idea of women in the workforce was frightening because it created a significant type of from male dominance. On the other hand, the emergence of working women gave a new hope for many women who did not want to just stay home and watch the children. Just as the mother’s work in the quotation reflects her internal struggle with this change, it also shows the changing climate of work on a national level. Additionally, the author associates the shotgun with the baseball glove. Baseball and shooting were both typically male dominated sports, but the mother does both. Such work exemplifies the change of heart of the mother and the American people after WWII. The idea of work changed as American society shifted from a white male dominated society.
Work in Bentrock reflects the struggles of the people as well as their ability to combat these struggles. Despite Ollie’s best efforts, his work could not put him into the exclusive Elks club because his work did not determine his status in society. As work continues to change, more social taboos will become norms, such as women and non-whites in the workforce. This notion of work not only reflects the change within Bentrock, but also America as a whole.
The Underside of Montana 1948: David’s Disillusionment
The facade of Bentrock, Montana, is the idyllic, but dull, American frontier town. Ordinary people working long hours in the fields each day to provide for their families. To strive for, and eventually live the American Dream, is the essence of what it means to be an American. To have equal opportunity, and to have hard work rewarded, is what all Americans hold in the highest regard. Larry Watson in Montana 1948 explores the post-World War Two era’s disillusionment with the idealized American Dream, and exposes the true meaning of what it means to be an American at the time, through David Hayden’s loss of innocence in the novel. David’s illusion of a perfect American small town is shattered when he realizes that Bentrock, a representation of the post-World War Two American society, has lost sight of the idea of meritocracy, a cornerstone of the American Dream and what it means to be an American. People are supposed to be judged solely by their merit, not by any other distinguishing factor, such as race.
In this small frontier town, these morals of the American Dream should be at their strongest, not subject to racial prejudice and systematic oppression and exclusion of the minority Native American population. David describes one example of the town’s discrimination, “Ollie Young Bear . . . hard work will get you” (3). America is a melting pot of identities, and the Native American minority should not be oppressed to the extent that they are essentially confined to the reservation, restricted of mobility up and down the social and monetary ladder. The only way to move up should not be to give up your culture, like Ollie Young Bear. Bias against Native Americans is unquestioned in Bentrock, and Wesley Hayden is likely not even aware of the casual prejudice against Native Americans that he is exhibiting in this passage. Ollie has done everyone celebrated by white society, becoming a ‘model minority’, and is even wealthy. Yet somehow it is not enough to make up for his race. The important word choice is “could be” versus “should be”. Wesley believes Native Americans to be lazy in general and he only approves of Ollie because he has been assimilated into white culture. Early in the novel, David is blind to this injustice, but by the time of the arrest of Uncle Frank, he finally understands as is horrified. Living the American Dream has suddenly become exclusive. Being an American is supposed to mean that hard work will earn you rewards, and that you will have equal opportunity to do so. Hard work for Ollie does not actually get him anything, only a taste of the respect white men in the society receive.
David spends much of the novel sifting through the images of popular depictions of the American frontier. His fantasies must confront his realities, and he must reconcile these images with the harsh realities of Bentrock. Marie Little Soldier does not reflect the stereotypes of Native Americans found in popular culture. The author points out that the United States has systematically disenfranchised the Native Americans, and held deep-set prejudices against them, and therefore argues that loss of innocence in small town idealism exposes the faults in the post-World War Two era’s idyllic American dream. David is shocked to realize that the American Dream at present is not available to everyone, and he sees new evil in everyone in society. David’s perception of the role of authority in society evolves throughout the novel, and by the time of Uncle Frank’s suicide he realizes that his blind trust in the morality of the status quo has been misplaced. In a small town such as Bentrock, the local authority puts everyone in their proper place, supposedly to ensure an orderly, productive society. Farmers are assumed to do nothing beyond growing their crops and tending to their land. Labor is supposed to be rewarding for the average person. The purpose of authority, which is granted by the common people, is to put everyone in their place and level the playing field, making everyone equal, acting as a sort of Robin Hood. For example, the rich have increased taxes. This is done to make an equality of opportunity for everyone, allowing ordinary people to live the American Dream. Supposedly it is an egalitarian society, but it is in fact an oligarchical one. Instead of everyone equal and content with their lot in life, many people feel beaten-down and oppressed by this grand leveling of society, like the harsh landscape of Montana around them.
Uncle Frank’s suicide would not have happened in an ideal world. Others feel enlightened, superior to the masses, whether because of their wealth or education. David experiences the widespread corruption in Bentrock when he describes, “When Grandfather . . . in the proper hands” (2). Julian Hayden is only paying lip service to the law. He feels a sort of ownership of the office, even though it is an elected office. The sentence structure of many clauses shows the passing of time over many terms as sheriff, and when he retires, he decides who should succeed him, “keeping it in the proper hands”. No other candidates are mentioned. Ordinary people simply cannot imagine anyone else in office, after authority has beaten them down. They had “nothing left over for making trouble” (1). The word ‘expired’ has a connotation of going bad, and the consolidation of power in the sheriff’s office stinks of corruption, which David eventually notices. Like the exclusion of Ollie from the Elk’s club, some members of society feel entitled, a “club” of sorts that is only opens to white males. This directly contradicts the central tenet of the American Dream, and alters David’s perception of the American identity. This system of oligarchy, Watson argues, is backwards and hypocritical to the American dream. Idyllic democracy has been submerged beneath the overpowering hierarchy of small-town relationships. This is something America thought they had left behind two hundred years ago, but it still haunts them.
The coming of age for the narrator is also a coming of age for America in 1948. Ordinary people had experienced firsthand humankind’s new capability for evil and atrocity, the Holocaust and the nuclear bombing of Japan coming to mind. Both America and David are maturing, asking difficult questions about what it means to be an American, and grappling with new and unfamiliar realities. It’s assumed that nothing is happening in Smalltown, USA. But under the facade of white picket fences, evil, prejudice, and corruption exist commonly and without restraint or acknowledgment. Uncle Frank was a hero to David, but now he can only be seen as a murderer. David’s perception of what it means to be an American is altered forever.
Role Models: The Relationship Between David and Wesley
In the novel Montana 1948, the relationship between David and his father is complex and distant, and leads us to better understand the struggles that they both face, and their development throughout the novel. Their relationship also helps the reader to understand the importance of positive role models for young children, and the conflict between justice and family loyalty, both of which are difficult themes that they face. Though, as the reader we don’t see into Wesley’s thoughts and emotions, (like we do David’s) through their relationship and the manner at which David views his father, we can develop a good understanding of both characters throughout the novel.
Although David and his father love each other, their relationship in the novel is generally tense and distant as they struggle to relate with one another, and fail to recognise the trials that the other faces during Montana 1948. One of the most notable difficulties that impedes on their relationship is Wesley’s profession as a sheriff. Frank’s crimes and Wesley’s inaction to them, drives a wedge into his father-son relationship, as David fails to appreciate the moral dilemmas that come with Wesley’s job, and can’t understand why his father doesn’t enjoy being a sheriff. He expresses his disappointment at the beginning of the novel, “My father was…a sheriff, a position with so much potential for excitement, danger, and bravery, why couldn’t some of that promise be fulfilled?” This puts a strain on their relationship, as not only does Wesley physically and aesthetically fail to compete with David’s opinion of a county sheriff, but also morally he doesn’t either. Wesley’s struggle between family loyalty and the law is one that David doesn’t ever fully appreciate. Though as the novel progresses, he begins to better understand how difficult it was for Wesley to grow up under Julian and Frank, “I suddenly felt sorry for my father… what must it have been like to have a father capable of speaking to you like that?” David never truly understands his father’s struggles. From Wesley’s side of the relationship, his failure to realise that his son knows about Frank’s crimes, also makes it difficult for them to connect. This is one of the main reasons behind their tense relationship, as Wesley is too preoccupied with his job and the choices that he is being forced to make, to notice his son or realise the guidance that David needs. As David struggles to make sense of the adult themes surrounding him, he doesn’t have the aid of his father. Again this makes it difficult for them to be close.
The relationship between David and his father helps the reader to understand the importance of positive male role models for a child’s development, and more importantly the need for a solid father/son relationship. A major theme for this novel is the difficult journey from innocence to adulthood. For David, he struggles through most of this journey alone, without the guidance of his father as he explores unmapped territory such as sexual urges, mortality and suicide. An example of David’s struggle to process all of these new emotions and feelings can be seen in the magpie scene. As he tries to sift through these complexities of adulthood, (by shooting things), he kills a magpie. “I realised that these strange, unthought-of connections – sex and death, lust and violence, desire and degradation – are there, deep in even a good heart’s chambers”. With the recent events that have occurred, he struggles to process them, without the aid of his father, he can’t navigate these new thoughts. As his father is unaware of his sons recent awareness towards sex and death. As a reader we can understand how being left out and his fathers refusal to explain the situation to him leaves him feeling frustrated. The experience also links David’s sexuality to violence at a subconscious level that demonstrates even further his inability to understand these new urges. It also helps us to understand that without his father’s guidance, David is only able to associate his normal sexual attraction, with Frank’s perverse actions, forcing David into seeing sex and himself as evil and discussing. When David is put it in a situation where he is aroused by a girl, he quotes that he felt “At once dizzy and ashamed and sick” with himself. This reinforces the idea that though David is thrust into many situations where he is forced to make adult situations, that he is still just a young boy, and struggling to shift through all of these emotions. He is not only facing the normal difficulties of adolesce, but also very serious themes like rape, murder and suicide. Concluding that David’s journey from innocence to adulthood is problematic, but it is even harder with a lack of positive role models.
Another way that this relationship helps me to understand the characters is through the conflict of family loyalty verses justice, which is the main struggle, that Wesley’s faces during this novel. Though we never see Wesley’s point of view in Montana 1948, we can come to understand him through the eyes of his son David. As David develops in the novel, he comes to better understand the trials that his father faces, and the implications that arresting Frank would have on his family. “Grief…I hadn’t realised until that moment how large a part of my father’s job this was” We come to understand how growing up under power hungry Julian made Wesley quite a weak and pliable man. He spent his life abiding to his father. Even when he is forced to make a decision between justice and family loyalty, he chooses his family. “He could not sufficiently fear, love, trust obey and honour God…because he had nothing left for his Heavenly Father after declaring absolute fealty to his earthly one” At the end of the novel, Wesley interactions with David give us insight into how difficult pursuing justice, had been for Wesley, with the golf ball scene. It shows how even though Wesley knew his brother was a bad man who had done some terrible things, he was still his brother, whom he admired and up loved for most of his life. The relationship between David and his father gives us insight into Wesley’s character and his emotions throughout the novel.
Montana 1948 explores the difficult relationship between Wesley and his son, to help us understand them better and mark their development throughout the novel. Their relationship brings up complex themes such as family loyalty verse justice, and the importance of good role models for children going through difficult times. Through their relationship we gain insight into both characters, their emotions and struggles. Without this, the readers would miss out on important lessons and themes.