From the summer of my twelfth year I carry a series of images more vivid and lasting than any others of my boyhood and indelible beyond all attempts the years make to erase or fade them ….
A young Sioux woman lies on a bed in our house. She is feverish, delirious, and coughing so hard I am afraid she will die.
My father kneels on the kitchen floor, begging my mother to help him. It’s a summer night and the room is brightly lit. Insects cluster around the light fixtures, and the pleading quality in my father’s voice reminds me of those insects – high-pitched, insistent, frantic. It is a sound I have never heard coming from him.
My mother stands in our kitchen on a hot, windy day. The windows are open, and Mother’s lace curtains blow into the room. Mother holds my father’s Ithaca twelve-gauge shotgun, and since she is a small, slender woman, she has trouble finding the balance point of its heavy length. Nevertheless, she has watched my father and other men often enough to know where the shells go, and she loads them until the gun will hold no more. Loading the gun is the difficult part. Once the shells are in, any fool can figure out how to fire it. Which she intends to do.
There are others – the sound of breaking glass, the odor of rotting vegetables …. I offer these images in the order in which they occurred, yet the events that produced these sights and sounds are so rapid and tumbled together that any chronological sequence seems wrong.
The above is not a spoiler since it is the first thing written on the first page of Larry Watson’s novel, one that has been characterized as a literary page-turner. Those are fairly rare, perhaps almost as rare as literary Westerns. Well, how about a literary page-turner set in the West? Now, that is virgin territory. But as the title tells us, this is not a historical Western. So, readers that do not enjoy Westerns need not shy away from it.
I read this soon after it was published in 1993. It is true that one can’t judge a book by its title or its cover, and I didn’t do that. No, I judged it by both its title and its cover (an oil painting of the Yellowstone valley). Only when I began reading did I discover that it was a coming of age story. For me, that was an added bonus.
At some point I read it a second time and then recently I gave it a third reading. Now, I do read quite a lot of books twice, but it really has to resonate with me if I turn to it a third time.
The narrator is middle-aged David Hayden looking back to the summer of 1948 when he was twelve years old. It was a summer of lost innocence. It was a summer in which he learned that truth is not always what we believe and that power can be abused, but those are not the hardest lessons he learned. Because of a scandal, a murder, and a suicide, he also learned that doing the right thing isn’t always easy, but it is especially hard when the choice lies between family loyalty on one hand and justice on the other.
The book expertly evokes a time and a place in prose that has been variously described as ‘understated,’ ‘precise,’ ‘clear,’ ‘crisp,’ and/or ‘restrained.’ I would accept those, but would add elegant.
“Part family memoir, part psychological drama, part historical adventure tale, part elegy to a place and a lost way of life ….”
-- David Huddle, 1993 National Fiction Prize Judge