A Review: ‘Let Him Go’

The best-selling novel Montana 1948 brought author and University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point English professor Larry Watson into the national spotlight. Subsequent novels have continued to focus attention on his work. Now a professor at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Watson has written yet another Great Plains novel staged in the last mid-century, Let Him Go.

Watson’s North Dakota of 1951 finds retired sheriff George Blackledge and his ranch wife Margaret on a quest to bring their grandson home. In prior action the Blackledges’ son has died in a freak riding accident, and their daughter-in-law Lorna since remarried and moved with her son Jimmy to Montana with her new husband Donnie Weboy. Subsequently, the grandparents have lost their only connection with their late son.

As the novel opens Margaret has packed the family Hudson to search for their grandson’s new family. A headstrong woman, Margaret is prepared to make the journey herself if her husband refuses to accompany her. But while George’s good judgment tells him to abandon the ill-advised plan, his devotion to his wife prevails. He joins her.

Margaret anticipates a sleuthing adventure that might take a few weeks, one that will involve camping and traveling cross-country while they track down leads to the whereabouts of Donnie Weboy. They find him much sooner than they expect; and they discover themselves in a nightmarish entanglement that they did not anticipate.

While the Blackledges know that their daughter-in-law has not made a wise choice in her new husband (a good-looking but diffident and undirected young man), they are not prepared for the brutality of his extended family. In the creation of the Weboy clan, Watson has snipped fabric from the cloth that William Faulkner used to create the Snopes family and James Dickey, the mountain men in Deliverance.

The result is a poignant tale of an old couple whose retirement has followed a course unforeseen, not only losing a son while he was in his prime, but a grandson as well. The wistful tone of the story quickly evolves into a tension that at times is nearly unbearable; the reader flips pages quickly, both anxious for and at the same time dreading an inevitable cataclysmic resolution.

Larry Watson is a masterful storyteller, crafting memorable characters, creating a vivid sense of place, and skillfully pulling readers into his plot. At a turning point in the novel, the action becomes as intense as an automobile crash; the reader wants to turn away from the broken glass and blood on the highway, but at the same time feels compelled to watch. Consider this midnight intrusion:

“Yes, there can be no doubt – George opened the door. He opened it and isn’t an open door – whether open three inches or three feet – as good as a spoken invitation to enter?

“But if George’s assumption was that someone from the motel office would appear in the doorway, he was wrong, and before he can push the door closed – an effort that would have been futile anyway, considering what his pushing strength would have been matched against – four Weboys have shouldered and shoved their way into Cabin Number Eight of the Prairie View Motel Court.”

While the book is a fast read, those who enjoy his work may come back for more by sampling his earlier novels that follow similar themes, Montana 1948 (1993), Justice (1996) and White Crosses (1998).

(As a side note, some of Gibraltar High School’s graduates of the mid-1990s might recall Watson’s visit as a Friends of Gibraltar sponsored guest writer, reading from Montana 1948 and conducting writing workshops for students.)