Artifact Sample: Reader Response to a Novel

Analytical Commentary Assessment System: A Sample Artifact

Reader Response to the Novel, Montana, 1948, by Larry Watson

Montana, 1948, Isolation, Adolescence. . .
Angelo Bonadonna

Of the many reactions I had to Montana, 1948, the one that stands out is my appreciation of the narrator. He’s an adolescent boy, caught in the middle of things within and beyond him—his childhood, adult crimes and crises, differing forms of love, punishments, justice, and various kinds of typical and atypical forces. The boy is archetypally “adolescent” (I can’t even recall his name at this point, though it was only a few weeks ago that I read the novel). In him meet all kinds of extreme forces, and his narration provides a patient and deep view of internal and external turbulence. He explains, for instance, how he is driven by a type of unconventional “wildness” (this aspect of him is so internalized that no observer could have ever detected it through the boy’s behavior or speech); most of all, of course, he is afflicted/affected by the fierce landscape of Montana, 1948, a place and time whose “definition” winds up being the full presentation of the novel itself.

This book teaches, in its quietly desperate way, the need for extended definition. In doing so, it prompts sympathy, the humane outcome of understanding and involvement. The book takes us into troubling extremes, the real history of a place, the kind of history that is never written in history books, but only literature, and here in the form of “sexual abuse, murder, suicide” (170). Read hastily or inattentively, this extended definition of Montana, 1948, might well lead us to an easy outsider’s conclusion, as typified in the comment of the narrator’s wife years later at a family meal: “David [ah, that’s the boy’s name! I found it in looking up this quotation] told me what happened when you lived in Montana. That sure was the Wild West, wasn’t it?” But the more proper conclusion comes from the father’s almost violent and deeply resonant (to David) response: “Don’t blame Montana! […] Don’t ever blame Montana!” (175).

Amidst it all—between the wildness and the father’s fierce final defense of Montana, the boy is there—invisible and serious—and he holds his world together. Amidst all the extremes swirling around him, he functions and acts—or rather just functions. Action is for adults. The boy is not a major player in the unfolding crises, but all the events register with him; they take root in his understanding, and so we have to ask, to what extent do they become his understanding? Whatever effect they have, the influence is one-directional: the boy is a recipient of Montana, 1948, not an agent in it.

The isolation of adolescence is archetypal, and the depiction of it in this novel reverberates in my unconscious and in the collective unconscious, one feels, of all who have survived adolescence. The boy is just part of the landscape, and he is maneuvered around by his parents and others as they attempt to solve monumental personal, family, professional, and community problems. Everything David hears—he hears a lot—is overheard. At one point he wishes, poignantly, that someone would just talk to him about the goings on—to have things explained, to provide him his opening, to have a discussion, to break through the loneliness, to set right some of the upheaval….

The boy remains quiet, and the cauldron simmers, though the lid never blows. On the one hand, I’m reminded of a quote from somewhere in The Rhetoric of Motives by Kenneth Burke. Burke says (I’m paraphrasing), as though to offer a formula for mental health therapy: find the secret; therein the neuroses lie…. This boy is beset with secrets. He learns, even as his mother and father learn, of the secret crimes of Uncle Frank, the town’s doctor and a respected pillar of the community. Despite his sophistication and power, Uncle Frank has committed grievous crimes, and these crimes command redress. The burden of addressing Frank’s actions falls primarily to David father, Frank’s brother, who happens to be the town’s sheriff. But a deep portion of the burden falls to David, who must come to terms with the brutalities and the confusions of Frank’s actions. And in following David’s narration, we chart a process with odd resonances to similar times when our characters were tested and buffeted. For while most of us do not have an uncle like Frank, all adolescents/adults have been tormented by “the secret”—if not of sexual abuse, murder, and suicide, at least of sexuality, competition, and guilt.

Like the best optimistic Young Adult fiction, the story chronicles a survivor’s tale. What it doesn’t do is glorify the bravado or authority of adolescence the way so much of our contemporary culture so stupidly does. I bemoan the cult of adolescent superiority that runs rampant in our culture. Adolescent cool, the cluelessness of adults, the liberations of sex, drugs, and extremes—whatever its forms, such romantic nonsense gratifies adolescents with an opiate of assurance—however wrongheaded, dangerous, or just plain irrelevant that assurance is to the real afflictions at hand. Montana, 1948 depicts a sensitive, intelligent, virtuous—and yes, confused—child-adult mixing it all up in the quiet chaos of ordinary life. David is not “cool,” but his shortage of cool and superiority is as relevant to his problems as the shortage of bourbon was relevant to the problem of all that extra ice on the Titanic. As we read on, we see that this kid needs the adult world, and he is unapologetic in that need. Unfortunately, the adult world is just “there” for him. But truth be told, he is just “there” for the adults, too.

So the story takes root. Individuals, though intertwined, fail to interact—at least overtly. Deep down, in the secret recesses of individual psyches, the wounds reverberate. Adolescence is tough, but the realistic portrayal of it, in literary works like Montana, 1948, brings redemption and satisfaction, if belatedly.

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