“In this shattering and iconic American novel, PEN prize-winning writer, Smith Henderson explores the complexities of freedom, community, grace, suspicion and anarchy, brilliantly depicting our nation’s disquieting and violent contradictions.
After trying to help Benjamin Pearl, an undernourished, nearly feral eleven-year-old boy living in the Montana wilderness, social worker Pete Snow comes face to face with the boy’s profoundly disturbed father, Jeremiah. With courage and caution, Pete slowly earns a measure of trust from this paranoid survivalist itching for a final conflict that will signal the coming End Times.
But as Pete’s own family spins out of control, Pearl’s activities spark the full-blown interest of the F.B.I., putting Pete at the center of a massive manhunt from which no one will emerge unscathed.” ~ Goodreads
How in the world can this be Henderson’s first novel? I call BS! Let me just say right from the start that Fourth of July Creek (May 2014) is NOT a light read. It’s VERY dark and disturbing. And if topics surrounding abuse (sexual, emotional, physical, alcohol, various drugs) bother you, don’t even pick this one up. I’m warning you now. Why all the caps and such? There were scenes that I can never erase from my mind, but still, it’s going to be on my favorites this year.
If you’ve been following this blog, you know that I like them a tad bit on the dark side. This one is entirely on the dark side. There is something about an author “going there”. But doing so in such a way that has you keep reading and come away with a different perspective is an author I can get behind.
Pete Snow is a social worker. That right there will give you an idea of what atrocities and heartbreak he comes across and tries to fix on a daily basis. But Pete is also working in a very remote area. An area where some people live for the simplicity of life, “living off the land” types and where some, unfortunately, live a lifestyle that doesn’t make sense to the rest of us. Criminals, abusers, degenerates, “feral” types who chose a remote place because they can be undetected, unaccounted for and unseen. They are paranoid of others, the government, addicted to all types of things, can’t afford basic needs, education isn’t high on their priority and most affected are the children that live with them. And this is where Pete comes in. The children. Pete not only tries to help these families but puts himself in very dangerous situations doing so. And if he doesn’t have enough to deal with in his job, Pete’s wife and daughter leave him and their relationship is as dysfunctional as the people on his case loads. It’s all a vicious cycle.
“He dreamed that we all contain so many masses and that people are simply potentialities, instances, cases. That all of life can be understood as casework. That DFS was a kind of priesthood.”
Henderson sets this 470 page turner in the early 80s and weaves in some fanatical religion, politics as well as a touch of suspense. There is a lot going on. But he does it in a way that feels believable and executes it flawlessly. It made me wonder if Henderson, himself, had experiences with social work due to the details and sense of urgency you feel while reading it. He did. I worked for three years at a therapeutic day school and while I didn’t make home visits, I was privy to all the back story and home life my students combated on a daily basis. Having that experience made me appreciate that the elements in this novel were not gratuitous but necessary to gain insight and empathy. He also adds an interesting writing element having Pete’s daughter Rachel answer questions in between chapters regarding her tumultuous relationship with her mother and father. She is basically reporting how her parents’ choices have affected her, being just another child in the system, ironically.
If I’m making you want to run from the computer, I’m sorry. But it is a dark story. The reason it is one of my favorites this year is because the writing is so beautiful and Pete is just doing the best he can under all circumstances. Aside from all the darkness he sees, he still can find peace and beauty in his small, simple town.
“He liked the Sunrise Cafe for its coffee and smoky ambiance and the way his arms stuck to the cool plastic tablecloths in summer and how the windows steamed, beaded, and ran with tears when everyone got out of church and came in for breakfast on a cold morning. He liked how Tenmile smelt of burnt leaves for most of October. He liked the bench in front of the tobacco shop on the square and how you could still send a child to buy you a pouch of Drum from inside with no problem from the proprietor. He liked the bowling alley that was sometimes, according to a private schedule kept only by them, absolutely packed with kids from the local high school and the surrounding hills who got smashed on bottles of vodka or rotgut stashed under their seats and within their coats. How much biology throbbed and churned here–the mist coming off the swales on the east side of town and a moose or elk emerging as though through smoke or like the creature itself was smoking. How the water looked and how it tasted right out of the tap, hard and ideal, like ice cold stones and melted snow. How trout looked in that water, brown and wavering and glinting all the colors there were and maybe some that didn’t really exist on the color wheel, a color, say, that was moss and brown-spotted like peppercorns and a single terra-cotta-colored stone and a flash of sunlight all at once. That color existed in the water here.”
I heard some buzz that this book might become a television series. While I am hesitant to see how that plays out, I know I will be watching in anticipation as a huge fan of his work.