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.
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