White Crosses
Larry Watson
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Get *White Crosses* delivered to your door! White Crosses
Larry Watson
Washington Square Press
384 pages
April 1998

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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.

Curled Up With a Good BookSheriff 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.

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