"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 FBI, putting Pete at the center of a massive manhunt from which no one will emerge unscathed. In this shattering and iconic American novel, Smith Henderson explores the complexities of freedom, community, grace, suspicion, and anarchy, brilliantly depicting our nation's disquieting and violent contradictions" --
Anyone who thinks about reading this book needs to understand that everyone in the book is a complete train wreck. The social worker who is the main focus, his estranged wife, daughter, girlfriend, brother and boyhood best friend. And then there's the people he is trying to help -- almost always unsuccessfully. None of these people is just mildly flawed -- they are all walking disasters. The one hint in the last few pages of something going right is erased by the last page in the book. Don't expect to be uplifted, satisfied or anything other than regretful that you had to read through such horror stories of lives.
Who is this guy, Smith Henderson, and where did he come from? Because this book is just so damn good! He's like Athena, who was born fully grown and armed, springing from the forehead of Zeus. Only this guy, this AUTHOR, has sprung fully armed with all the best tools of the writing trade from, from ... Hell, I don't know where from, but did I say how GOOD this book is?
I probably don't really need to summarize the plot, because the book's already been reviewed a few hundred times by now. But Pete Snow is a protagonist who will not be easily forgotten. A caseworker for the Department of Family Services in western Montana in the early Reagan years, Snow is overworked but fiercely dedicated, trying with everything he has to make a difference in the lives of some of the poorest and most screwed up people you have ever met. As a character, Snow is completely, fully realized. Henderson is inside the guy's head to an extent that, once you've started reading, it's almost impossible to get Snow out of YOUR head. While Pete tries to save the least of our brethren, his own family has disintegrated. His wife and thirteen year-old daughter (and oh, the daughter, another sad story, and another character Henderson OWNS, he is so inside her head too) have left. Pete is living in a cabin in the mountains, off the grid. Hey, I don't want to summarize this complex, moving, at times frighteningly horrific story. That's already been done. Then there is Jeremiah Pearl and his eleven year-old son, Benjamin. Pearl is a survivalist, a religious crazy, a guy who hates the government and civilization in general. When they enter Pete's purview in tiny Tenmile, Montana, the story takes off, and you can't help but hang on for your life in a tale that takes you from Montana to Texas to Indiana to Washington and Oregon and a lot of strange places in between. Henderson knows these places. He knows the Yaak wilderness - the forests and mountains and valley - as well as the red light district of Seattle and the main drag at UT-Austin. And he makes you feel that you know these places too.
What makes this book such a ride? Think Waco, think Ruby Ridge, think the Unabomber, and maybe even a little bit of Jonestown with its sacramental Kool-Aid. Put all this kind of stuff deep in the trackless "rain forest" and "jungle" of the Yaak. Send in cops and the ATF and FBI on a concentrated all-out manhunt. And put Pete Snow, this imperfect, battered but dedicated "priest" of the secular religion of Social Work, right smack in the middle of it, trying to save a young boy. (In fact there are other cases he's covering that are equally interesting and morbidly horrific, i.e. Cecil and Katie, and their abusive druggie mom.) And then there's the parallel plot of Pete's daughter Rachel (aka 'Rose'), who takes you deep into the terrifying, dark and ineffably sad world of teenage runaways.
Sorry, I can't get all this stuff into a review. There's just too much going on, but it all comes together masterfully, and there is a kind of redemption to be found, finally, if you manage to ride it out to the end.
Influences? Comparisons? I first thought of a recent novel by another Montanan, Kim Zupan's THE PLOUGHMEN - another beautiful book about an equally grim subject. And the descriptions of the bars and clubs of Missoula made me think of the late James Crumley, whose PI noirs nailed those places so well. And the Yaak Valley, with its dope farmers and other weirdoes brought to mind the West Virginia stories of Pinckney Benedict. And poor, crazy, raging teenage Cecil and his doper mother brought back Earl Thompson's classic novel of Depression-era Kansas, A GARDEN OF SAND. In the end, however, Smith Henderson has created his own unique world here, and it couldn't be any more real - or terrifying - than it is. Final word: FOURTH OF JULY CREEK is, hands down, simply one of the best books I have read in the past ten years. My highest recommendation.
If you are looking for a cheerful, uplifting story of redemption, this is not your book.
If you re looking for something to give you a glimmer of hope in this broken world, this is not your book.
If you are offended by bad language, this is not your book.
If you have difficulty reading stories about child abuse, this is not your book.
If you have made it through all of this list without shying away, then maybe this could be a book for you.
It's dark and edgy and grim and gritty. It's not a pretty story, and the writing spares no details when it comes to some of the horrors and tragedies experienced by these characters.
Yet, despite all the disclaimers above, I did find this to be an intriguing story. I've never been one to shy away from dark stories, and I think that is because they are usually so different from my own life experiences. I enjoy being able to get a glimpse of what life is like for people who are not like me. And these characters from rural Montana are definitely not like me!
Pete Snow, the main character in Fourth of July Creek, is a social worker trying to help kids in his rural Montana town of Tenmile. But just like the kids he is trying to help, Pete has plenty of problems of his own. When Pete tries to help a boy living in the woods, he comes face to face with the boy's father, Jeremiah Pearl, a conspiracy theorist who is anxiously and eagerly awaiting the End Times. As Pete's own family falls apart, he also begins to form a cautious and unlikely friendship with the Pearls, and he gets caught in the middle when the FBI come to town on the hunt for Pearl.
The idea that "abuse leads to more abuse" was illustrated clearly in this grim tale. I just felt so incredibly sad for all of these characters. They all appear to be stuck in the rut of following what their parents and grandparents have done before them, of living a life filled with abuse, pain, alcohol, drugs, sex, and regret. No one was happy. At all. I know this story is fiction and not based on real people, but I know there are many people in the world who live this way. It is terribly sad to think that people could spend their whole lives living like theses characters, without joy and without hope. I also found it interesting that the social workers in this story seemed to have the same problems and issues as the clients that they are trying to help. Pete said something to this effect in the story, "we take kids away from people like us." Yet, I still found myself rooting for Pete and wanting him to succeed, despite his flaws. He was far from perfect, but still he was trying to do good. I appreciated the real humanity of his character.
So while this story didn't make me feel good in any way, it was still captivating. It's hard to say I enjoyed reading it because of some of the tough content, but I still would say I liked the book quite a bit. I especially liked the parts when Pete interacted with Jeremiah Pearl and his son Benjamin, and when we were given glimpses into what their life was like before Pete met them. I also liked the "interviews" (I put that in quotes because I'm not convinced that they were really interviews...kind of wish there was a little more closure there) with Rachel, Pete's daughter. Although having two daughters of my own, those interviews were also terrifying for me to read!
I would recommend this book with a lot of caution, because it is definitely not for everyone. But if you are up for this gritty story full of flawed, troubled characters, it is well written and engaging and one that I won't forget for a while.
Pete Stone is a social worker assigned to a vast territory in the northwest corner of Montana, of sparsely settled pockets not of civilization, but of people. He's like a lot of those people. His marriage is broken, his teenage daughter is sullen and doesn't get much attention from a father with a demanding job, and he drinks. A lot. His successes trying to help children and listen to the adults purportedly caring for them are few but he still plugs away at it.
Between other hard-luck cases, Pete is called when a wild child appears at a school one day. Even in the pre-computerized days of the late '70s and early '80s, the dawn of the Reagan era, it's unusual for a boy in such a state to have no records. The boy, Benjamin, doesn't consider himself neglected. He and his pa live in the woods off the land. Headed up toward camp, Benjamin's father warns Pete away, obviously willing to shoot him.
That father is Jeremiah Pearl, who knows the end times are coming. His dearly loved wife saw the signs coming and had the whole troop of Pearls, including all the babies, leave Indiana and head for the woods where they might have a chance to survive.
Pete leaves foodstuffs and clothes in a niche in the woods. Sometimes things get taken. The distrustful Pearl gradually doesn't quite trust Pete, but accepts his help and then him. In between spells when they spend some time traipsing through the land, Pete's wife leaves Montana for Texas, where there is a chance of a man taking care of her and their daughter, and their daughter realizes she's got nowhere to go. So she leaves. And it's about as blandly dire as one would think.
The sections where Pete tries to navigate the system through several states, trying to find a young runaway daughter, shows how easily children fall through the cracks of a social system set up to protect them, and shows the heartbreak of parents who love their children but don't know how to take care of them. So do the sections where that daughter, Rachel, becomes a child of the streets.
Whether it's parents who can't handle being parents, children forced to grow up and fend for themselves, people who believe what they are told or people who don't believe the evidence in front of their faces, Henderson's debut novel is filled with innocents who wonder about what has happened to them or who cannot handle what they see going on. Most of the people in the novel feel helpless about what they see, whether it's a small-town judge heartbroken when Reagan wins, a female social worker who was an abused child or a federal agent who regrets the choices he has made.
About the only people who don't feel helpless are Pearl and his son. Pearl is a combination of just about every paranoid, black helicopter-fearing loner who have inhabited the crannies of Northwest empty places for decades. He's also far more than that, and the dull despair that sometimes enshrouds Henderson's people is a great contrast to this character who searched so hungrily for something to believe in, and chose wrongly.
Henderson's novel earns its humanizing, heartfelt climax and coda both because the scope of the characters' journeys are so well-drawn and because the little details are so right. This is a highly political and social novel that is tightly anchored to its characters and setting. To have carried this off with no preaching or screeching is a remarkable achievement, and an uplifting reading experience.
and professional lives, overmatched by the evils of the world, drinking way too much. Three stories are interwoven: the failure of Pete's marriage and disappearance of his daughter; the tragedy of a family infected by drugs; and the story of Jeremiah and Benjamin Pearl. Can Pete save any of them? Himself?
Smith Henderson has written a very readable book, a gripping story with several insights about the hardships of life on the fringes of society. However, I had a major problem with the novel that kept me from enjoying it completely. The main male characters in the book -- Pete, his brother Luke, and the survivalist Jeremiah Pearl, who Pete encounters in the woods with his son Benjamin -- are, despite their deep flaws, basically noble men trying to do their best by their kids and families. Pete himself has a failed marriage, is battling alcoholism, has a runaway teenage daughter, and seems prone to criminality, but it's clear that he cares about the kids he comes across and only wants to help them in any way he can. In contrast, the women in this novel are all ruins. They are addicted to either drugs, alcohol or sex; they are failures as girlfriends, wives and, most especially, mothers. They may love their children, but inevitably wind up damaging them, sometimes irreparably. The only female character who's allowed to show some strength is Pete's runaway daughter, Rachel, but she may well be on the road to ruin herself -- her fate is a question mark. I found this treatment of men and women in the story to be incredibly lopsided, without justification -- a feeling that continued to grow as I continued to read. While all in all, I liked the book and admired the writing, I had to deduct a star just because of this one-sidedness.
Read in 2014.
Part of my problem with the book is personal. I have an aversion to stupidity and while I can happily read about somene with no redeeming characteristics (I loved Hannibal Lechter), I cringe at watching characters making one stupid move after another.
My other problem was the language. There are times that the language just sings. It is beautiful and lyrical. However, it did not seem real that a high school drop out could on occassion wax poetically like somone with a MFA in English.
Given that the book does a good job of involving you and making you care about the characters.
Though he tries to be a good man, he is in fact incredibly flawed himself. His own home life has disintegrated and his fourteen year old daughter is missing. He drinks to much and parties too much.
In the beginning I had very little sympathy for any of these characters, except of course the children. Things started rather clear cut, the dividing line firmly rooted between the good and bad. The mark of really good fiction is to make the reader see other sides of this equation, to make the line less firm. In this his first novel, Henderson did just that. He contrasts the beautiful landscape of the woods and mountain, streams full of fish and frogs, with the bleak and squalid existence of the people living there. He makes us see another side to the story and finds a way to redeem his characters.
Snow learns that following the letter of the law is not always the only way. At the end of the book there is some solace, not your typical resolution, but hope.
Think Winter's Bone grittiness, though not quite as lyrical and maybe a little Deliverance thrown in, but this is a really good first novel and ultimately a story all his own.
Fourth of July Creek is about the unraveling of family and community as Benjamin Pearl becomes more paranoid and unpredictable and Pete’s personal life slides out of control with the disappearance of his daughter and an FBI investigation.
Smith Henderson’s first novel (he has published numerous short works and won the 2011 Pushcart Prize) is a bit of a doorstopper at over 450 pages, and there were times I thought it could have stood a little editing. Despite this, Henderson’s prose is gritty and mesmerizing as the story unspools into chaos. Pete is not terribly likable, and yet I found myself hoping he would sort out his problems and find a happy ending, not only for himself, but for the damaged people he is trying to help.
Henderson reveals the struggles of rural Americans including poverty, illegal drug use, homelessness, and broken families. Benjamin Pearl becomes symbolic of a modern America where fear of government intrusion and paranoia about losing freedom spirals into a madness that would be funny if it were not so terrifying.
Fourth of July Creek is a dark commentary on the problems facing our country. Pete Snows struggle to save the families of Tenmile, while losing the fight to save his own family, becomes a compelling story about one man’s quest to find meaning in a disconnected world.
Readers who enjoy novels set in the rural Pacific Northwest which are literary in style, will want to give this one a try. Smith Henderson is an author to watch.
A secondary plot element follows Jeremiah Pearl and his devoted son, Benjamin. Pearl is a paranoid survivalist living in the wilderness with his large family. Except for Benjamin, the rest of the Pearl family is not well developed in the novel. Pearl is a hard man but seems to love his son and cares for his family. Initially, Ben seems to be just another example of a child abused by a self-absorbed parent, but as the narrative progresses, Henderson reveals a warmer relationships. We learn the family history through backstory--the mother is extremely religious, believes in omens and is prone to magical thinking. Because he is devoted to her, Jeremiah is excessively influenced by her strange behavior. Her problems result in a tragedy that cannot be revealed without spoiling the reading experience.
The narrative is totally engaging because of multiple plot threads, interesting characters and the rural Montana setting, which is ably evoked by Henderson. The novel is long and tries to do a lot, thus occasionally leaving minor issues unresolved. However, for the most part, Henderson manages to remain focused on his main theme in this fine novel.
Indeed, there's not a single character in this book--and there are quite a few--who isn't screwed up in one way or another.
And by the end, a major character whom we perceived as being screwed-up from his introduction becomes one who gains some of our sympathy.
Human beings are a complicated lot, we are. No one can righteously carry the mantle of angel, and there are few true devils. The book ends, "You gotta believe. You can't just go through live acting like there are answers to every--"
The book is very well written. Ironically, with so much ugliness happening in the narrative, it is countered in the narrative by so much beautiful prose. I question a bit whether some of the wonderful allusion and metaphor the author uses should have been allowed to slop over into the things actually voiced by some of the uneducated characters, but I suppose that's literary license.
This is Smith Henderson's first novel, and I would look forward to his next.
But, right up front, I want to say I have two issues with this book: its genre and its title.
I do not agree with the genre the book is classified under (at least at my library), Mystery and Suspense. To call it that is a stretch. Although part of FOURTH OF JULY CREEK wonders what became of a family, that is only a part. The book is literature more than it is mystery and suspense.
And FOURTH OF JULY CREEK is about more than Fourth of July Creek.
The book centers on Pete Snow, a social worker in Montana. Fourth of July Creek has to do with one of his cases that begins with the discovery of a filthy and somewhat wild boy, Benjamin Pearl, who lives in the wilderness with his father, Jeremiah, a paranoid man, suspicious of everyone, always afraid that his freedom is threatened.
Pete seeks to gain their trust so they will accept his help and, in so doing, learns the Pearl family also consists of a wife and several more children. Where are they?
But that is just one of Pete’s cases featured in FOURTH OF JULY CREEK. Also, issues in his own life make up half the book, with a runaway daughter who resorts to prostitution because she thinks she is maintaining her freedom and a brother who is evading prison.
All the parts of FOURTH OF JULY CREEK, Pete's social work and his personal issues, have in common the desire for freedom.
Smith Henderson is an author I’ll be watching for. His writing is brilliant, a word that may be overused but, in this case, is applicable.
I enjoyed the book, was interested in many of the characters. There is a great deal going on throughout this rather long book--we learn much about the hard lives of the survivalists living in the great western wildernesses, the life of a teenage runaway on the streets of Seattle, the lives of children whose parents are crack addicts, and who are shunted through foster homes, and even into juvenile detention if no foster homes are available, the life of hard-scrabble musicians in Austin Texas. It's a very sad book, full of broken characters. It might have been a better book had the author not attempted such breadth, but it is nevertheless a book well-worth reading if you can deal with the pain of the characters.
3 1/2 stars