Text response: Montana 1948

“At the end of the book, has justice triumphed?”

    Triumph is a strong adjective to use to describe a result, as is its antonym failure. As opposites, triumph and failure are easy to distinguish. Justice, however, has a troubled past; a history of being confused with injustice. Justice is the triumphant rule of law, and injustice is the failure of the law.

    Justice personified presents three symbolic features: the sword, the scales and the blind-fold. Do the events of Montana 1948 achieve the three democratic ideals and essential tenets of justice? Hell no!!!

    At no time in Montana 1948 does Frank Hayden pay for his crimes. Justice’s sword represents punishment, retribution and even remorse, but there was never any chance that the crime of Marie Little Soldier’s murder would be respected accordingly. At first the Sheriff asserts that “the problem’s been taken care of. Frank said he’s going to cut it out (p.85).” Gail immediately points out that “Sins – crimes – are not supposed to go unpunished (p.85)”, but she is ignored. Even a child can see that this is wrong, and David has nightmares of the Indians running through the streets of Bentrock seeking revenge. David has very strong feelings about the kind of justice his Uncle should face: he aims a .22 at Frank’s head, he later believes that his father has actually killed his own brother in the basement, and finally he smiles to find his uncle dead. Nevertheless, Frank’s suicide is no triumph of justice for his victims but a successful avoidance of judgement. Frank’s victims get nothing from his death; indeed, death is an escape for both Frank and the Hayden family. It is no wonder that Gail’s sense of morality will not permit her to stay in a town where “lies concocted” hide the truth. Frank’s death is a far cry from any just result in Montana, but proves Wesley’s original assertion that “He’ll have to meet his punishment in the hereafter. I won’t do anything to arrange it in this life (p.85)”.

      The inability of the Sheriff to prosecute the guilty is equalled by his failure to judge criminality. The scales used to weigh innocence and guilt in Montana are wildly offset by other powerful influences, including endemic nepotism and arrogant bigotry. Sheriff Julian Hayden has created his own little fiefdom of lawlessness, a “Hayden tradition”, in a town where “Life was simply too hard… nothing was left over for raising hell or making trouble (p.16).” The harshness of the land and consequent lack of crime has allowed the Haydens to become complacent in the exercise of the law, even if they would like to think themselves as serving the community in an effective manner. When Grandpa wonders aloud “Since when do you get arrested in this part of the country for taking a poke at a man, red or white (p.118)” we get an idea of his style of frontier justice: under Julian’s rule, guilt or innocence is irrelevant to practical considerations. Bias becomes even more apparent when the members of the Hayden “aristocracy” are weighed before the law. Following a dangerous drunken incident in a bar Wesley laughs “They couldn’t arrest us – we are the law! (p.75)”, and he is probably right. In truth, Julian’s belief that he is serving the community is a sham: Julian’s practice is not justice but the exercise of power – the community serves him! Grandpa’s popularity and influence allow him to continue to determine the course of law, and even the pursuit of law, long after his term in office is over, and it has nothing to do with justice.

        It is in the last democratic ideal, that “all are equal in the eyes of the law” that the officers of Montana 1948 most clearly fail in their duty. The statue of justice is blindfolded to represent that she does not judge power, prestige, past or potential; justice sees only truth. The citizens of Bentrock, however, cannot see past their own prejudices, and inhabit a town full of sordid little “secrets”. Sheriff Wesley Hayden believes himself to be “free of prejudice (p.34)”, but his first reaction to Marie Little Soldier’s story is to think “she’s an Indian – why would she tell the truth? (p.46)” His bias is clearly apparent as he judges her story on the basis of her race – this is despite the fact that he already knows that his brother is guilty! (See page 54.) As presented in the previous paragraph, rather than be blind to anything but the truth Sheriff Hayden blinds himself to the truth. Wesley fails to serve the community, to serve the law, and deliberately uses his power to deny justice until it is too late. The reluctance of the law to prosecute dates back to the time of Grandpa’s dominance. Len McCauley explains “You know what your granddad said it means to be a peace officer in Montana? He said it means knowing when to look and when to look away (p.93)”. “Peace” is an appropriate description of the exercise of law here – it is a peace sought by Frank when he criminally lays Marie to eternal rest. This kind of law is not just, is not equal, is not fair, and is in fact unjust.

        The conclusion of Montana 1948 is not a triumph of justice. The victims of Frank’s crimes achieve little from his death, and are denied the sentence justice might pass on him. In a town ruled by bigotry there was little hope Frank would ever be judged fairly, but his crimes instead were long ignored and eventually buried and hidden in lies. The incestuous rule of the Hayden sheriffs saw that equality before the law would not be possible, and the Haydens unlawfully used their power and influence to pervert the course of righteousness. Montana 1948 is not just a failure of justice; it is clearly a story of injustice.

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