I had a hard time believing Fourth of July Creek is Smith Henderson’s first novel because it reads elegantly, with the practice and poise of a polished, experienced author. Henderson’s name was familiar — he won both the PEN Emerging Writers award in 2011 and the Pushcart Prize before that for his short story, “Number Stations” — but while reading this story of a social worker trying to help a young boy living in the Montana wilderness, I was convinced Henderson’s intricate prose must have been the voice of an established writer.
I was wrong.
This is, in fact, Henderson’s first novel, but it doesn’t read like one. Fourth of July Creek tells the story of Pete Snow, a social worker with his own familial problems living in a small town in Montana in the early 1980s. Pete is called to an elementary school, where Benjamin Pearl, a dirty, wounded, malnourished 11-year-old boy has wandered in, curious and distrusting. After Pete tries to help the boy by buying him new clothes and returning him home to the Montana wilderness, Pete is confronted by Benjamin’s disturbed survivalist father.
Pete must slowly gain Jeremiah’s trust to save Benjamin, but as Pete’s family begins to fall apart, paranoid and aggressive Pearl becomes the center of an FBI investigation. Suddenly, Pete is caught in the middle of a manhunt that threatens to damage his family, his hometown, and the boy he desperately wants to save.
Fourth of July Creek
Harper Collins (May 2014)
This novel is the product of over 10 years of plotting, drafting and writing, which explains the complex layering of the story and thoughtful prose. It is both an intimate story of Pete’s familial conflicts and a grand observation of social structure, poverty and paranoia. Henderson infuses his own life experiences in the book, structuring a story with an accurate voice.
He says in an interview with Here and Now: “I worked for several years in a group home in Montana so I had exposure to a lot of those kids and their stories, which, I have to say, I did not use for this book. Those things were sacred. Those things that they went through were their stories. But, being with them and with social workers, I saw something going on that I hadn’t seen in a book that was set in the West and I hadn’t seen really much in literature at all, which was this investigator of families.”
Henderson’s family also hails from Montana; his father is a logger and his grandfather helped build railroads. This, combined with Henderson’s familiarity with the Montana landscape, combines to create an authentic, realistic reading experience that is easy to subscribe to.
As Pete navigates small working class towns in sparsely populated parts of Montana, he presents a prism to view the natural world. Henderson describes a scene where Pete helps Benjamin return home to his father in the woods: “Beyond that was an uninterrupted series of ascending ridges bisected by an old railroad track that was no longer in use. The kid said he went along the backbone of the ridges until he descended to and crossed a creek and then finally up a logging road… Of course, the kid had no idea how you drove there, didn’t know if it was a Forest Service road or a Champion Timber Company road or what. It was coming on evening and they had been all over looking for any markers the boy might recognize. Outcroppings of rock. But there were only trees, miles and miles of green larch.”
Pete’s fresh observations of nature create a vibrant portrait of this scene, woven together with the anxiety of nature’s expanse. Despite the fact that the narrative is written in third person limited, the narrator often drops words and manipulates sentence structure to match Pete’s observational patterns. Pete thinks like an educated social worker infiltrating a town of working class people struggling to pay their bills, but Henderson narrates in a way that allows Pete’s patterns of thought to emerge naturally.
Henderson often clips words in his prose — the way a person would in mid-thought — as quick observations of the world collide with each other, interrupting and overlapping. During brief chapters, the narrative sometimes shifts to second person as Pete interviews members of families he works with, placing us right in the center of Pete’s life. This effect brings Pete’s inner monologue closer to the people in poverty he attempts to help, shifting perspective and allowing other characters’ voices and stories to crack Pete’s perception.
The small Montana towns Pete frequents feature mostly working class people and families that often can’t afford to pay their power bills or fix their broken-down cars. Pete frequents these towns trying to keep the kids who are often the most affected by poverty out of trouble, away from abuse and in safe homes. He has to try to make impoverished and dysfunctional families work, yet he struggles to keep his own family together.
It would be easy to create a hero character for these marginalized people to orbit, but Henderson presents a nuanced and complicated protagonist who struggles to address his many flaws. Pete is estranged from his wife and teenage daughter. He lives alone in a cold, rickety, remote cabin and showers at the courthouse. He “knows what kind of father he is.” His daughter becomes a runaway, and much of the book is dedicated to Pete’s attempts at finding her. He’s guarded and judgmental, but his flaws keep him from crossing the delicate boarders of classism. Instead, he genuinely wants to help, not because he feels superior to families that need him, but because he knows they deserve something more than what they have.
Pete’s relationships with these families represent a different type of American reality that doesn’t get much devotion in the publishing world right now. These are characters who exist on the fringes, in the dusty outskirts of the modern world, working to live and often hurting each other in the process. Pete’s dedication to helping people no matter how strange or confusing they might seem is an example of how hard this novel works to ask us to understand people we usually disregard, cast away or criticize without much thought. It is a novel interested in understanding psychological damage on both sides of the spectrum and how to reconcile these differences together in tandem.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.