“Let Him Go”
By Larry Watson
Larry Watson sets his novel before child protective services operated in Montana: Fall of 1951. Margaret and George Blackledge pack up their Hudson and drive west from their North Dakota home in an effort to locate their only grandchild, a 4-year-old boy, and return him to their home. The death of this boy’s father, Margaret and George’s son, continues to baffle the troubled grandparents. The 4-year-old’s mother, Lorna, married a man Margaret recognized as abusive. Without notifying Margaret and George of their plans, Lorna, her new husband, and the boy abruptly leave North Dakota weeks before the grandparents begin their pursuit of them.
“Let Him Go,” a finalist in the fiction category for this year’s High Plains Book awards, quickly turns into a most curious quest story. George sits behind the wheel of their Hudson, but Margaret metaphorically drives them in pursuit of their grandson. George is a First World War veteran, a former sheriff and a recovering alcoholic who begrudgingly concedes to Margaret’s determined efforts to locate their grandson.
Watson’s title refers, obviously but not solely, to George’s resigned attitude regarding this boy. The title’s terse three monosyllables mimic George’s restrained manner of communicating. Some readers may consider him too stoically silent and the third person narrator stingy when sharing insights into his thought process. He carries grief over the loss of his son and grudges toward Margaret to a degree that joy seems absent from his life. But these attributes also make him unpredictable.
When Margaret and George find their grandson in a southeastern Montana community, their quest develops into a psychological struggle, with Margaret and George confronting members of the extended Weboy family that Lorna has married into and moved in with. Threats of violence ratchet up the novel’s tension. A corrupt sheriff and county attorney protect the Weboys and treat the grandparents as threatening outsiders.
Meeting with Lorna in a restaurant, Margaret — straightforward and decisive as usual, a contrast to her husband — appeals to the young mother. You know “in your heart,” Margaret says, that she and George would give the boy a good home. “Is it the mention of the human heart? The urgency in Margaret’s voice? The expression of defeat in Lorna’s eyes? Without contributing reason or feeling to the argument, without saying a word, George Blackledge picks up his cigarettes and slides out of the booth and walks away from the two women and their competing claims on a small boy.”
But his abrupt exit does not mean he will abandon Margaret or her goals. Without sharing his strategy with her and without the narrator revealing his intentions, George does act. There is a stunning cinematic quality in the novel’s climax that many readers will not have anticipated.
Like Watson’s “Montana 1948,” perhaps the best known of his previous seven novels, “Let Him Go” depicts personal, timeless conflicts in a compelling way. It provokes the reader to question the concept of justice in an era that does not seem so distant.