Fourth of July Creek: A Novel
480 pp., $26.99
Fourth of July Creek
After finishing the final page of Smith Henderson's mesmerizing first novel, Fourth of July Creek, you bump into the acknowledgments, which end with a bow to social work professionals in Texas and Montana: "Thank you for your insights, but above all for your service to the most vulnerable among us."
The novel's main character, Pete Snow, 31, is a social worker in northwest Montana who lives in a remote cabin with running water but no electricity. He bears a heavy caseload of vulnerables, both official and unofficial. He gives himself to his job while being "a case" himself, estranged from his wife and his runaway daughter. It's the early 1980s. Ronald Reagan has survived an assassination attempt, but drugs and family dysfunction have set children free to experience brutal things alone in the new American plague of homelessness.
Pete's flock of concern includes Jeremiah Pearl and family, who've come to Montana to live in the woods while waiting for the apocalypse. Pearl's son appears at a school, and Pete is called to pick up "a pygmy or some other reduced people." Another book-long focus is Cecil, a 15-year-old boy with a drug-addicted mom and a beautiful baby sister. Pete fights for Cecil despite the boy's eagerness to kill the mom and generally raise hell. Uncommon belief in damaged young people is Pete's forte.
Meanwhile, Pete's own daughter, Rachel, runs from her mom in Texas. We get bulletins on her homeless progress through chapters styled as interviews between Rachel and a social worker, as rendered by an impersonal recording angel:
Does she think of her father?
Yes. Certain guys will remind her of him. A laugh. A build.
Does she miss him?
She will remember with a certain curiosity that she used to.
Smith Henderson, like Pete, is a native Montanan, and he offers readers the great pleasure of seeing his country while Pete drives from client to client:
The yellow valley slicked and glistening where the haymows stood in the fields like wet yurts … . The highway bore south, and at Paradise, Montana, he crossed just down from where the Flathead joined the Clark Fork River candescing in the sun like a sheet of copper tapering off up the valley toward Idaho.
Hazards await Pete during client visits, whether a brace of Rottweilers catching him at full speed running to his car, or the menacing Jeremiah Pearl, or simply the appearance of the suffering and abandoned. But he loves everyone and judges few. Even the ATF personnel who hunt down the crazed survivalists, Pete recognizes as brothers. The book makes manifest the grace that grounds social empathy, and the page-by-page registering of scenes and people reminds the reader eager to turn those pages that a novel at its best is a work of empathy and identification, founding—through the words and faces and actions of imaginary people—a story truer than any "nonfiction" can tell.
Fourth of July Creek offers nearly ecstatic vision, beckoning a reader to hope and joy and love despite the misery the characters inhabit. Jeremiah Pearl, utterly bereft of sanity, civility and family, can still, at the story's end, miraculously connect with Pete:
It is through wasted eyes, red and scalded round, like he'd been all this time staring into a white sun, that Pearl at last sees him. The man is burned through, cauterized, a scar, and for all that, familiar as whatever it is Pete sees in any mirror. Pearl is Snow is himself is everyone.
Bruce Wiebe is a retired high school English teacher, woodworker, and Kindle reader in Lakeville, Minnesota.
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