“I could never believe in the rule of law again.” Says David, reflecting on the events of 1948. Why does he come to this conclusion?
Larry Watson’s Montana 1948 is a story set at Bentrock, Montanan focuses on the family struggles of the Haydens between loyalty and justice. David Hayden, the adult narrator, looks back at the summer when he was twelve years old, and recalls all the life-changing events which completely lead to his disbelief of the rule of law. Young David once believed in the rule of law, and believed the adult is righteous to uphold justice, but on the contrary, what unveiled before him is how the Hayden family neglect the law and abuse power, is how his grandfather attempts to protect his criminal son, is how uncle Frank’s misdeeds is covered throughout.
David’s perspectives on the rule of law is initially influenced by the way the members of his family abuse their powers. In the position of sheriff in generation, the Hayden family is the one enforce the law all the time, even above the law. Knowing “when to look and when to look away” is the principle of grandfather Julian, as a former sheriff, who ‘was a dominating man who drew sustenance and strength from controlling others’. It is a sign of corruption as law is not taking seriously. As for Wesley, although he seems not “get a hang of it”, he actually lived happily and proudly under Julian’s power at the start.
This is evident when David recounts his drunken father said to Gail “They couldn’t arrest us-we are the law. ”after Julian intimidate back the cowboys at a bar. With power in their hands, they are able to do whatever they want against the law without being punished. David was shocked when he discovered that both of his father and grandfather were in conspiracy of knowledge about Frank raping Indian girls, but just indulged it. Before reaching the central climax, David already finds out that people are not equal in front of the law, powerful people is always dominant.
The light of justice is getting dim and dim in response to the two main characters’ action. Naïve as David, could originally believe his grandfather will take care of everything, if Wes chose to tell on Frank. “He’ll shake him up and shout in Frank’s face that he’d better straighten up and fly right or there’ll be hell to pay.” However the reality is that neither Wes nor Julian brings about justice at first. Wes doesn’t want to breach family loyalty, so he claimed he “won’t do anything to arrange it”, despite of ultimately overcoming his moral dilemma and standing up to Julian. Julian’s confrontation to Wes that “You don’t lock up your brother” for raping Indians is evidence of inequality before law based on racism. His following action on setting Frank free by attacking David’s house is even more lawless. After stumble into these disturbing events, David realizes that the one who should be the representative of law, ironically, is the one break the law first.
If there is the rule of law, then “sins-crimes-are not supposed to go unpunished”. Frank did pay his life for the bill eventually, but it didn’t undergo the ways in law. In order to preserve the family reputation, all the family members are in agreement of concealing the truth of Frank’s death and all his crimes. Thus, justice is not achieved for dead Marie and those Indian patients. At that time, David senses how powerless the law is, so he can’t help but ask “How many secrets had our town agreed to keep?” And since “any human community might omit stories of sexual abuse, murder, suicide…” he no longer holds his childhood faith in the rule of law again.
All these encounters in David’s younger days, make him aware of the human intervention of law. The rule of law can be alternated by human, the rule of law can be rewritten by human, the rule of law doesn’t always deliver justice. When the family loyalty clashes with justice, the rule of law has to compromise.