“Montana 1948” by Larry Watson is a novel about the struggles of the Hayden family torn between loyalty and justice, honesty and corruption during the tragic events which take place in the “Wild West” town of Bentrock. One of the most important themes in this book is family loyalty versus Justice.Wesley Hayden, the elected Sheriff of Mercer County, has always felt inferior to his older brother Frank, who is a doctor and hero of WWII.
Because of family loyalty, Wesley does not address Frank’s crimes of rape and murder as a sheriff should. Wesley decides not to punish Frank when he first knows Frank rapes Marie. Wesley talked to Frank at the ranch and accepted Frank’s statement that he would “cut it out” and would not consider punishment.
After Wesley talking to Frank about his crime, he says to Gail,”‘I think the problem’s been taken care of. Frank said he’s going to cut it out'” (75). Readers are not provided with any other contexts, but the only fact that Wesley and Frank talked and Frank promised to stop on whatever he has been doing. Wesley follows up and says, “‘He’ll have to meet his punishment in the hereafter. I won’t do anything to arrange it in this life'” (76).
Wesley does not think it is his business to punish Frank even though he is a sheriff. Instead, he believes that Frank can pay up for he has done in the afterlife and God will punish him for his sins. Wesley considers family and loyalty over justice in this case and does not want to bring his brother Frank to jail by confronting him in public.
Alternately, Wesley talks to Frank privately and try to settle the issue among themselves. Wesley thinks Frank will keep up with his words, so he trusts him. Wesley is indebted to his brother because Frank saved Wesley from abuse when they were young and in this case he esteems that Frank can keep up with his word and not make the same mistakes again. After Frank’s crime of raping and killing Marie was exposed, Wesley locks up Frank in the basement in order to avoid Frank the shame of being in the jail as Frank asks for.
“‘He’s in the basement. Goddamn it! Don’t you get it – I’ve arrested him. He’s down there now'” (101). Wesley has got Frank in the basement, and Wesley is furious.
He has finally got a chance to contest Frank and figure out what’s going on. “‘Frank said he’d come with me without a fuss. But he’d like to keep this quiet. He didn’t want to be locked up in the jail. I said I’d respect that, and he’s going to cooperate. Cooperate—hell, he’s acting as if this is all some kind of joke'” (103). Frank asked not to be locked up in a jail and Wesley accepts, which shows that he cares about his brother and he emphasizes the idea of family and loyalty.
Wesley put Frank in the basement rather than jail because he wants to figure things out and give Frank another chance. Wesley is still protecting Frank even as he tries to hold him responsible for his crimes, because Wesley remembers how Frank often saved him from bullying when he was a kid. Wesley has a strong sense of family and loyalty. “‘My brother. Being in the one place in the world I needed him most'” (151).
Even though Frank is a criminal, in Wesley’s mind, Frank is still the person who is a hero for him. When Frank died in the basement, the Hayden family cannot talk about the truth of Frank’s crimes and actual nature of his death. David thinks to himself that, “It was decided to explain Uncle Frank’s death as an accident, to say that he had been helping my father build shelves in our basement, that he fell from a ladder, struck his head on the concrete floor, and died instantly” (160). Frank seems to realize that he could not avoid from arresting to the public, which he cannot bear, therefore takes his own life. Frank died because he committed suicide but it was hidden by his family because of his reputation. The idea of family and loyalty is shown in this case when his family doesn’t want people to know that Frank committed suicide. “Similarly, it was decided not to reveal any of Frank’s crimes. What purpose would it serve? He would never molest anyone again” (160).
The Hayden family has covered up Frank’s crime and saved his reputation. Frank has been the more favorable one compared to Wesley. They knew that Frank had raped Marie and they didn’t want outsiders to know about this because it will ruin his reputation. They love Frank and do this for him even after he died. Frank’s death does not maintain justice. The family cannot talk about Frank’s crimes or the actual nature of his death. Wesley moves away from Bentrock and finally leaves his post as sheriff behind.
Wesley Hayden has a duty to his father and Frank. Wesley remembers how Frank often saved him from bullying; therefore, he tries to protect Frank’s reputation by avoiding Frank from punishment, putting Frank into basement rather than jail, and concealing the truth of Frank’s death. Wesley’s conflict between family loyalty and justice causes him to be unable to fulfill his role as a sheriff in Mercer County because he values his relationship with the Hayden family more than being a just sheriff. Did Wesley’s actions and belief in family and loyalty bring him any benefits or does him any good? Are his actions rational and justifiable? These are questions that are debatable for readers to think about.