“White Crosses” by Larry Watson (Pocket Books, 371 pages, $23)
When Larry Watson’s spare, poetic novel “Montana 1948” won the 1993 Milkweeds National Fiction Prize, judge David Huddle wrote that the book was “a shining example of a literary work that demonstrates how a disturbing truth is preferable to a comforting lie.”
But Jack Nevelsen, the central figure in Watson’s absorbing new novel, “White Crosses,” believes just the opposite, and as sheriff of Montana’s Mercer County in 1957, he has the power to shape the truth.
When he first hears of the fatal accident on Highway 284 on graduation night, May 27, he thinks it’s probably kids. “Teenagers. Oh, sweet Jesus, somebody’s babies.”
And, yes, one of the victims is new graduate June Moss, thrown from the car, her neck broken. But the driver of the white Chevy is Leo Bauer, the elementary school principal, a respected veteran about Jack’s age, with a wife and a teenage son. Suitcases in the car indicate that June and Leo were running off together.
Before the night is over, though, as Jack goes to break the news first to Leo’s son, Rick, and then to the new widow, Vivien - who’s either sick or drunk - Jack has come up with a story that protects Leo’s reputation. He does this even though he didn’t much care for Leo. But Jack does care about his community - he takes every white cross on the highway personally - and he hopes that the version of the truth he has devised will “allow Bentrock to return to itself as quickly as possible, to be the town it was before the accident, a town where school principals didn’t carry on with teenage girls.”
What Jack can’t foresee, however, is that his story, his comforting lie, will have its own reverberations leading to yet more tragedy.
Readers of “Montana 1948” will find themselves on familiar ground in “White Crosses,” and not just in terms of its stark prairie setting. Watson shows similar insight into his characters as both individuals and as part of a community. The story is morally and emotionally complex, the writing assured.
But “Montana 1948” was a lean book, and “White Crosses” would be more powerful if it too were shorter. As it is, Watson dwells on Jack’s every thought and gesture with such focused intensity that the novel merely inches forward.
Only near its end, as Jack discovers the terrible price exacted by his well-intentioned lies, does it attain the urgency and inexorability that made “Montana 1948” such a literary page-turner.