Montana 1948 Character Essay Prompt

David Hayden

David is the author of the story and the first-person narrator of the book.  He writes the story forty years after the events, once everyone else, especially his parents and grandparents, are dead.  The tale he records involves accusations of sexual abuse against his father’s brother, David’s Uncle Frank.  David at the time was 12 years old.  He was still considered a child by his family, and he gathered information by eavesdropping on adults.

In the story, the young adolescent David is intelligent, curious, sensitive, loving, and energetic.  In many ways, he is what the reader would expect of a 12-year-old boy.  He has a crush on his housekeeper/babysitter, Marie.

David still pursues his boyhood activities, such as horseback riding and fishing.  However, he is very eager to be a full member of the family and to be treated like an adult.  David is very fond of his mother and father and feels loved and taken care of.

David’s life changes with the revelations of his Uncle’s crimes and the murder and suicide that follow.  As David looks back on events as an adult, he recognizes that they contributed to his skepticism about life and history, which he teaches.  He knows first-hand about the hidden secrets that are not included in history textbooks. 

Wesley Hayden 

Wesley is David’s father, the sheriff in the town of Bentrock, Montana.  Sheriff Hayden is intelligent and well educated; he has graduated from law school and passed the bar exam.  He is 38 years old at the time of the story.

He has become the sheriff because his father was sheriff before him and persuaded him to follow in his footsteps.   In David’s eyes, his father is not suited to his job.  He is not a controlling or dominating figure like his grandfather.  Wesley Hayden does not believe in violence and does not carry a gun.

David’s father also suffers in comparison to his older brother, Frank.  Frank is a war hero from World War II and a successful doctor in the town.  Frank was also a star athlete.  Wesley was injured as a youngster so he was not athletic…

Montana 1948 explores different kinds of familial loyalty, and what happens when these loyalties pull people in different, even opposite, directions. Wesley Hayden has a duty to his brother, but also to Marie Little Soldier, who cares for David and is described as being “like family” several times in the novel. He first tries to deny that his brother Frank could have done the things Marie accused him of doing, but Frank’s guilt quickly becomes clear. He remembers how, as boys, Frank often saved him from abuse and bullying at the hands of older kids. He feels indebted to his brother—he is torn between two loyalties. What’s more, he also feels conflicted about his duty to Marie and his duty to his wife and son, who are endangered when he decides to lock up Frank in the basement (in order to spare him the embarrassment of a jail cell).

Grandfather Hayden chooses one son (Frank) over the other (Wesley). He even goes so far as to send men to Wesley’s house to break Frank out, which terrifies Gail and David. This is a pattern that, it is revealed, has occurred throughout the boys’ childhoods. Frank has always been the favorite—Wesley has never earned his father’s love or loyalty.

The narrator of the novel, David, feels conflicted about whether or not he should “rat his uncle out.” He loves Marie deeply, and hates his Uncle Frank for what he did, but cannot let go of the fact that Frank is family. Tellingly, when David is grown, one memory from his childhood stands out—he remembers playing football with Marie and her boyfriend, Ronnie Tall Bear, and feeling as though the three of them together made a “real family” that wasn’t defined by the obligations of blood but rather ties of affection. The book therefore asks what defines a family—is it biological? Should familial love and loyalty truly be unconditional? In many ways the book serves as an account of how an irrational commitment to biological and familial ties can be destructive. But it also maintains that “family” is something individuals can define for themselves—no one is bound to any one definition of family. In fact, the novella portrays the decisions a person makes about what “family” means to them as fundamental to their growth and identity.


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