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Fourth of July Creek


Fourth of July Creek

The cover of FOURTH OF JULY CREEK does exactly what it is supposed to do: it portends what lies within. It probably represents a tree stump, or possibly a spider web; in either case, it displays the nexus of an interconnected unit radiating outward in all directions. This smart and incisive debut novel by award-winning author Smith Henderson is a narrative of the life of an individual who affects and is affected by those with whom he comes in contact, a multi-faceted, flawed jewel in which actions have consequences good and bad, unintended and otherwise.

The book in set in the Pacific Northwest in 1980, at a time when the country was seemingly just beginning to awake from a four-year hallucinatory sleep. Pete Snow is a social worker with his finger in the dike of a hundred tiny social tragedies of rural Montana. It is obvious that Snow, operating in relative obscurity out of a tiny, almost non-office in a courthouse basement, has picked a growth industry for his vocation; there are simply not enough hours in the day to deal with his considerable one-man caseload, be it fighting family members or  neglected children.

"If you are looking for a serious, engrossing book with which to start your summer, FOURTH OF JULY CREEK is where you should begin."

It is the latter that is of primary concern to Snow when he is called to the local school to tend to the needs of an 11-year-old boy named Benjamin Pearl, who has wandered into the building. Pearl is unschooled and unsocial, his clothes little more than rags, his social graces next to non-existent, his nutritional state pathetic. His needs are multitudinous, made more serious by his inability to to properly appreciate what they are. Snow’s efforts to help the boy --- some minimally new clothes, food, a ride home --- are so tragic as to be almost comical.

Pearl’s inability to direct Snow to his isolated home is alone worth giving FOURTH OF JULY CREEK a shot; one soon realizes that no matter how this story is going to end, “well” or “happily” would not be anywhere near the proper adjectives. Such feelings are magnified one-hundredfold when Snow encounters Pearl’s father, Jeremiah, a fervid isolationist who doesn’t much appreciate outsiders of any sort, helpful ones in particular. It is to Snow’s credit that he does not immediately give up on either Jeremiah or his son, not entirely winning them over but incrementally insulating himself into their lives, making this or that just a bit better in the short term.

What is understood of Snow’s efforts from the jump, however, is that there is not going to be any long-term benefit. There are any number of reasons for this, primarily two. The first is that Pearl’s secretive activities have attracted the long-term interest of the FBI, which has been ongoing from a point in time that precedes Snow’s involvement with the family. The second is Snow’s divorced wife and Rachel, his 13-year-old daughter. Snow’s motives in burying himself in the problems and affairs of others are not entirely altruistic (When is it ever?), given that it helps him to avoid the utter helplessness he experiences in dealing with the fraying of his family, despite his best intentions and efforts. When things in Snow’s professional and personal lives turn from a slow-motion slide to a full-out disastrous cascade, we can see it coming from a long way off, which doesn’t make it any less horrendous or fascinating to watch. Nor does it stop the reader from cheering Snow on, even as he faces almost certain failure at the end of the road.

A great deal of the novel is a slow ride, but the tale is no less intense for it. Henderson holds you gently but won’t let you blink or look away. Not that you’ll want to. Once you start reading, there isn’t a page you'll want to miss. If you are looking for a serious, engrossing book with which to start your summer, FOURTH OF JULY CREEK is where you should begin.

Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on June 13, 2014

Fourth of July Creek
by Smith Henderson

  • Publication Date: March 10, 2015
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 480 pages
  • Publisher: Ecco
  • ISBN-10: 0062286463
  • ISBN-13: 9780062286468