In Montana in the late 1950s, white metal crosses were driven into the
ground near the roads to mark the sites of fatal car accidents. Like
today's "X marks the spot" signs, these crosses were put in place to
remind those who saw them to exercise caution, to think about the grim
repercussions of reckless actions. The white crosses that give Larry
Watson's latest novel its title are emplaced with that intention. But,
as happens often today, these warnings go unnoticed or unheeded until
it's too late, and you realize that you've already passed the point
where you might have saved yourself.
Sheriff Jack Nevelsen's official duties seldom put him in real danger's
path. Mercer County is a quiet piece of Montana, and Jack's existence
in his lifelong hometown of Bentrock has been for many years a placid
one. That all begins to change one night in May of 1957. Bentrock's
married elementary school principal and a local girl, graduated from
high school just hours earlier, are killed in a one-car accident on the
county's most dangerous curve. What Jack discovers at the scene is a
potential scandal that could shatter the stubborn serenity of his
community: this respected married man and this serious young woman
were apparently running away together.
Jack immediately starts laying the groundwork for damage control.
Several of the suitcases belong plainly to the girl, June Moss. But
the tags on the other suitcase bear the name "Rick Bauer" -- the name
of the dead principal's son. Jack breaks the hard news first to Rick,
who tacitly follows Jack's subtle urging to stick to a tale that will
absolve his father of anything more than bad driving. What Jack wants
Rick's and June's mothers -- indeed the whole community -- to believe
is that Leo Bauer died while helping his son and June Moss run off to
get married. This lie will keep the town's image of itself intact.
Jack believes that he does what he must to fulfill his oath to protect
and to serve.
In the accident's aftermath, keeping the lie itself intact puts a whole
new burden on Jack's shoulders. Rick Bauer turns sullen and intractable.
A high school friend of June Moss comes to Jack with her doubts about
the truth of Rick and June's supposed elopement. Jack begins to cruise
the county, searching out signs of doubt, while his own life becomes
fodder for his new paranoia. He questions his own wife's fidelity as
he realizes how distant their relationship is. He spends less and less
time at home, and buttresses the construction of his big lie with
careful half-truths and evasions. As he grows increasingly unfamiliar
with himself, he finds that he is becoming obsessed with his attraction
to Leo Bauer's widow.
Jack's tower of lies and hidden feelings holds fast. Jack's life,
however, does not. He is shot by the grief-embittered uncle of June
Moss, who wants to avenge her death on Rick Bauer. As Jack recovers,
he turns over most of his duties to his deputy. He begins to spend
time with Leo Bauer's widow under the umbrella excuse of teaching her
to drive so that she, too, might escape Bentrock. The emotional
moorings of his life become unknotted, and the truths buried by his
lies will rise up, driving Jack to the story's startling conclusion.
Larry Watson, author of Justice and Montana 1948, writes
with forthright and painful honesty about small-town life on the
northern plains. Clear prose and sure characterizations are hallmarks
of this novel. The human frailties that Watson hints at and reveals
of the people in Mercer County, Montana, are reminiscent of the
Faulknerian folk of a certain fictional Southern county, but presented
in a more succinct and readable style.