I find it difficult to separate a book from the experience of reading it. I spent a great deal of time on tour this summer, reading at bookstores from southern California to New Hampshire, and I encountered Larry Watson’s Montana 1948 toward the end of all this, a hot day in Ann Arbor when I had some time to kill before an event. I was traveling with Unbridled Books’ sales director, who I’d name except that he once stated a preference for being a silent partner in these things. He’d been driving me all over the state of Michigan so that he could talk to independent bookstore owners and I could read at their bookstores. We’d done the same thing in New England a month earlier.
We spent an hour or so in the Dawn Treader Book Shop (“Ann Arbor’s Best Browse”, according to the bookmark.) I feel an inordinate amount of guilt when I buy used books from living authors (the lost royalties! The book that doesn’t appear on the sales numbers and thus lessens the odds of the publisher wanting to buy the author’s next book!) but I do it anyway sometimes, and I’d spent a small fortune on new books that week. I picked up Kevin Brockmeier’s The Brief History of the Dead, which I liked, and Larry Watson’s Montana 1948, which strikes me as a small masterpiece.
It was a bit of a leap of faith—the copy I picked up was a small green hardcover, cloth-bound and missing its jacket, so there was no synopsis or any other indication of what the book was about—but my traveling companion pointed at it and said “Have you read this? It’s quite good,” and I’m susceptible to the recommendations of people who read a lot. I read the first two chapters in the bookstore and decided I couldn’t continue to live without reading the rest.
The next day my flight home from Michigan was canceled, which wasn’t entirely surprising—I was, after all, flying Delta, which in my experience seems to suffer from an unusual degree of difficulty in getting its planes off the ground—and I found myself with five hours to kill in the Detroit airport. For the first time that week, my habit of buying a book at every tour stop seemed sensible. I found a quiet corner and read Montana 1948 in its entirety.
I’ll let you guess when and in which state the book takes place. It’s summertime, and the narrator is twelve-year-old David Hayden. His father, Wesley, is the sheriff of their fictitious small town. His uncle Frank is a war hero and a highly respected local doctor, the favorite of their domineering rancher father. David is close with the Sioux woman who works in the household, Marie Little Soldier. When she falls ill one morning, David’s parents call Frank to look in on her. But not only does Marie refuse treatment, she refuses to be left alone in the room with the doctor, and flies into a panic when he comes close. When pressed, she tells David’s parents that Frank has been molesting local Native American women and girls for years. She’s dead within days, ostensibly of pneumonia; but she had been showing signs of recovery the day before she died, and David saw his uncle leaving their house around the time of her death.
It’s a well-plotted story, but the marvel of this book is the quiet lucidity of the prose. I’m frequently drawn to literary pyrotechnics, fractured narratives and jigsaw-puzzle structures—Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad, Colum McCann’s Let The Great World Spin—but the linear simplicity of the story is captivating in an entirely different way. A story that could easily spin off into melodrama is told with utmost calm and restraint. In the afternoon I spent with this book, I hardly noticed I was stranded in an airport.