Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson, review by Bruce Jacobs
Firmly rooted in the remote Yaak River Valley of northwest Montana during the Reagan administration, Smith Henderson's robust first novel centers on Pete Snow, a dedicated Department of Family Services officer, and his caseload of broken families and displaced children. Among the "twitchy and dysarthric" kids, "newly suicided fathers and their wreckage" and mothers with "shifting partners and adversaries and errant unattached freaks" stands Jeremiah Pearl, a survivalist and paranoid fanatic. Although Pearl and his family have taken to the land and holed up in scattered wilderness camps with their guns and Bibles, his 11-year-old son, Ben, is referred to Snow when he wanders down from the mountains and is discovered sick and lost on the local school playground. With an epic sweep, Fourth of July Creek is the story of Snow's dogged attempts to "save" Ben, and Pearl's equally stubborn refusal to surrender his family to a society of "poisons and toxicants... entrapment, fiat currency, lawyers." It is also the story of Snow's scattered but sincere attempts to save himself from his own broken marriage and deal with his runaway teenage daughter, his alcoholism, his unpredictable brother wanted for assaulting his parole officer. As Pearl's paranoia increases and Snow's personal life unravels, violence escalates and Henderson's tale branches into a full-blown saga of modern American disconnection and extremism.
A 2011 Pushcart Prize winner and Pen Emerging Writers Award nominee, Henderson homes in on the U.S.'s dark side--from the outwardly majestic national forests of the American West where Pearl's isolated family confronts ATF and FBI agents, to the drugs and prostitution streets of Seattle and Indianapolis, where Snow's daughter scrambles to survive in a world without a family of her own. As Snow slowly wins his way into Pearl's world, he realizes that "Pearl is Snow is himself is everyone." He sees his own failure: "We did not love our child enough... I go into homes all the time and I save children... and I didn't save my own daughter."
If self-knowledge were enough, Snow might find redemption and even reunion with his daughter; but Henderson doesn't let us off the hook so easily. His aptly named novel might not be the country we want to see, but it is the one he convincingly shows us that we have. The U.S., and particularly the West, is "peopled with old Scots and Germans who stiffly stood in their canvas and gingham, in wind-blasted straw hair and dun hats like people hewn from wood... yet many had come to novel ends, death by dynamite by rope by fevers by horse by broken hearts by suicide." In this remarkable first novel, modern America is a hard place that only kindness and empathy can make easier.