Students, professors and community members crowded the Christopher Cohan Performing Arts Center (PAC) to hear author Larry Watson speak Wednesday evening. Watson was here to discuss his book, “Montana 1948,” which was chosen by PREFACE & SLO County Reads to be the featured novel for its summer 2008 program. The novel, one of his seven published books, is also the winner of both The Milkweed National Fiction Prize, and the Mountains & Plains Bookseller Association Regional Book Award.
Traditionally a large part of Cal Poly’s Week of Welcome (WOW) freshman orientation program, PREFACE has expanded to include more areas of the community. Now seven years old, it joined with the SLO County Library, and has grown into a series of events that includes more than just students. In addition to the estimated 3,500 incoming freshmen who read the book, many community members also took part, holding discussion groups in local libraries and other off-campus locations, and showing the success the program has had to diversify the events. Indeed, part of the reason that “Montana 1948” was chosen, is because of the potential of its many themes to resonate with a varied audience.
The story, which revolves around a conflicted family struggling to cope with the uncovered secrets of an uncle, who is an abusive doctor in the community, has no shortage of complex and timely topics that are broad enough to appeal to a variety of people. Besides tackling family and community issues, Watson’s choice of a protagonist also provided a poignant perspective for the reader to ponder. By telling the story of a grown man reflecting on his childhood, Watson explores the universal transformation from child to adult, including the necessary disillusionment that accompanies one’s departure from the innocence of youth.
Watson’s presentation in the PAC was subdued and thoughtful and focused on the reasons behind many of these themes. This included much time spent discussing the inspirations he finds for writing, including the ubiquitous experiences he observes in the people around him. For this novel in particular, Watson points to a Midwestern Literature class that he taught in the mid-1990s as a large motivation. When the focus of the class turned to the relationship between the classroom texts and his students’ personal experiences, Watson said he knew he had something. It was then that he realized, “Where [he] came from offered possibilities,” and the novel “began to take shape.”
The class also enlightened Watson to the unique uniformity of the Midwestern region of the Untied States. While not from Montana himself, his North Dakota upbringing gives him the familiarity with the American Midwest that he uses to make his novel so realistic and relatable. “I wanted a frontier front, a Wild West undertone,” Watson said, explaining why he picked that specific setting.
Watson also stressed Montana’s conduciveness to what he considers to be one of the novel’s most important themes: silence.
“The silence of repression, the avoidance of truth, the fear of embarrassment from one’s community, and of challenging authority” all flourished against the background of sparse Montana, and played a large part of the “unhealthy silence” that he explored with the story. In the same vein, he also emphasized the importance of the novel’s specific time setting to accomplishing his goals. The period following World War II saw America at the cusp of what Watson described as the “buttoned-up 1950s,” and fit well with Watson’s theme of “the devastating consequences of silence, the covering up, the concealing.” He also said, “I retreat to the past, where history and memory have already done some of the writer’s work. The past is not as shifting or as shifty.”
While stressing that “none of this really happened,” Watson named some of his family members as loose models for characters in the book. Like the protagonist, both Watson’s father and grandfather were sheriffs and, like David’s father Wes, Watson’s father left his work in law enforcement to practice as an attorney. His focus on exploring secrecy also explains the sparse narrative of the novel, which often lends itself to heavy description of the characters and the Montana landscape.
A English instructor (he is currently a visiting professor at Marquette University, and has previously taught at the University of Wisconsin), Watson seemed at ease in front of an audience comprised of roughly half students, and was ready to take their questions at the end of his presentation. Fielding queries about topic from his beliefs about current events, to his past novels, Watson was cautious to recognize his authority on some issues.
He did, however, acknowledge one of his strengths: “I am observant,” he said, articulating what his presentation had alluded to all night. To Watson, being observant of what surrounds you, always taking in the truth, even in the midst of silence, sometimes provides truth that outweighs the findings of the sharpest mind.