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Fourth of July Creek

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In this shattering and iconic American novel, PEN prize-winning writer, Smith Henderson explores the complexities of freedom, community, grace, suspicion and anarchy, brilliantly depicting our nation's disquieting and violent contradictions.

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, Benjamin's activities spark the full-blown interest of the F.B.I., putting Pete at the center of a massive manhunt from which no one will emerge unscathed.

466 pages, Hardcover

First published May 27, 2014

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About the author

Smith Henderson

5 books295 followers
Smith Henderson is the recipient of the 2011 PEN Emerging Writers Award in fiction. He was a Philip Roth Resident in Creative Writing at Bucknell University, a Pushcart Prize winner, and a fellow at the Michener Center for Writers in Austin, Texas. Born and raised in Montana, he now lives in Portland, Oregon.

Fourth of July Creek is his first novel.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 2,236 reviews
Profile Image for Will Byrnes.
1,310 reviews120k followers
July 6, 2023
There should be fireworks shooting off for Smith Henderson's first novel, as it is a just cause for celebration. This is not to say that the subject matter is exactly festive, but the book is a triumph.

Pete is a social worker in Tenmile, Montana, a place so insignificant it was named for it's distance from the nearest possible somewhere. The folks he is charged with trying to help out need all the support they can get, but some can't seem to accept any.

There are three main threads braided into this novel. Cecil is a troubled teen in a household where the biggest problem is his substance-abusing layabout mother. The two do not get along, big time. Firearms are involved.

When eleven-year-old Benjamin Pearl wanders into town alone, dressed in rags, and looking like he'd been reared by wolves, Pete is called in to check things out. Following the story of Benjamin and his family is the core here, although a portion of almost every chapter is given over to the third thread, Rachel Snow, Pete's daughter, who has troubles of her own. Pete is the central element interlacing with the threads.

Pete Snow is basically a decent guy, bloody far from perfect, but his heart is in the right place. He really cares about the people he is charged with helping, and tries his damndest to figure out what the best thing is to do for each. That it does not always work out, and that he is better at helping others than he is himself, are foregone conclusions.

The Author

Smith Henderson offers us a look at a place in America, rural, and sometimes not so rural Montana, but also a time. It is no coincidence that the story is set in 1980, when the promotion of "Morning in America" also encouraged the release of a lot of pent-up insanity. Benjamin's father is a seriously scary survivalist. His paranoia may at times have a basis in reality, but his worldview is straight out of the Lunatic Fringe Encyclopedia. There have always been folks with Jonathan Pearl's particular flavor of madness, but it looks like Henderson is signaling what lies ahead, a world in which entities like right-wing talk radio, Fox News and any organization associated with the Koch brothers foment fear 24/7 and offer a media route in which to legitimize lunacy. Ben's father actually believes, when he sees jet contrails, that the gub'mint is spying on him. There is plenty more to that story, but the political, this-is-what-is-being-unleashed, element is quite significant, although it is only implied. The implications of freedom are given a look. At what point does your ability to be free, living a life of paranoia, infringe on the rights of those who have not chosen the same path? Where is the line between legitimate desires for non-interference and license to do whatever? Where is the line between society's right to protect it's children and parents's rights to raise children as they see fit?

We get a look at institutional limitations and extreme downsides, even when those institutions are staffed by well-meaning folks. Of course not every one is so well-meaning. We also get a look at the hazards to kids of growing up working class, from screwed up homes. Children have a lot to contend with here.

Ok, now that I have made the whole thing sound like such a downer, time to shine a bit of light in the darkness. While Pete definitely has his issues, he is beautifully drawn and is someone we can cheer on, most of the time anyway. There are some good people in Tenmile, a family who fosters kids in need, a caring judge, a tonic to the extant horrors. Learning about the survivalist world is fascinating stuff, even if these days we know more about it than we should have to. The writing is powerful and stunningly beautiful. A sample of lovely descriptive:
He liked the Sunrise Cafe for its coffee and smoky ambience and the way his arms stuck to the cool plastic tablecloths in summer and how the windows steamed, beaded, and ran with tears when everyone got out of church and came in for breakfast on a cold morning. He liked how Tenmile smelt of burnt leaves for most of October. He liked the bench in front of the tobacco shop on the square and how you could still send a child to buy you a pouch of Drum from inside with no problem from the proprietor. He liked the bowling alley that was sometimes, according to a private schedule kept only by them, absolutely packed with kids from the local high school and the surrounding hills who got smashed on bottles of vodka or rotgut stashed under their seats and within their coats. How much biology throbbed and churned here--the mist coming off the swales on the east side of town and a moose or elk emerging as though through smoke or like the creature itself was smoking. How the water looked and how it tasted right out of the tap, hard and ideal, like ice cold stones and melted snow. How trout looked in that water, brown and wavering and glinting all the colors there were and maybe some that didn't really exist on the color wheel, a color, say, that was moss and brown-spotted like peppercorns and a single terra-cotta-colored stone and a flash of sunlight all at once. That color existed in the water here.
There are plenty more examples to be found here. One particular image of native fauna coming into contact with civilization was particularly chilling.

Henderson may be new to novel-writing, but he has already had some success with other forms. I do not know if he had much success as a social worker, a prison guard or a technical writer, but he co-wrote a feature film, while at the University of Texas, Dance With The One, won a 2012 Pushcart Prize for his story Number Stations, and the 2011 PEN Emerging Writers Award for Fiction. I guess he has emerged. It should be known that you have probably seen some of Smith Henderson's work already, without realizing. You know that half-time Superbowl ad for Chrysler, with Clint Eastwood, Halftime in America? Henderson was one of the writers. It ain't halftime this time. Henderson, with Fourth of July Creek goes long and scores a game-winning TD.

There is satisfaction to be had in how Henderson resolves the conflicts he has presented. And even when his outcomes are not happy ones, they are believable. We have been treated in recent years to a wealth of top-notch first novels. Fourth of July Creek will fit in nicely with the likes of The Orchardist, The Enchanted, and The Guilty One, for example, and it would sit very comfortably next to works by Willy Vlautin. Smith Henderson's is a dazzling new literary voice, and the release of this outstanding work is cause enough to light up the sky with barges-full of pyrotechnics.

Trade Paperback Publication date - March 10, 2015

This review was first posted March 7, 2014

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Henderson's Web page, FB and Twitter

In case you missed it above, here is the Halftime in America ad

6/27/14 - A gushing NY Times review by Janet Maslin

7/4/14 - a lovely short short piece from Ron Charles on the naming of the book and it's geographical placement.
Profile Image for Jeffrey Keeten.
Author 3 books249k followers
September 6, 2020
”He was frightened for her and what was about to happen to her and felt the fullest burden of the fact that he was indeed a thing that had happened to her too and was happening to her yet and would be for a long time to come.”

Pete Snow is a good man, despite that fact, he is in the vortex of a tornado. Those close to him are flung far and wide, battered and bruised by the briefest of contact. His relationship to his larger than life father is nearly nonexistent. When his father dies he learns of it when people start offering him condolences. His brother has recently whacked the crap out of his parole officer and is on the lam. His wife sleeps with someone, purposeful, with the intent of watching Pete walk out the door. His daughter is on the verge of womanhood with a slutty mother as a role model and a father more interested in saving other people’s kids than his own. It is tragic to watch a man who wants to do so much good creating so much havoc.

There is also Cecil, a teenager Pete is trying to help out of a bad situation, but ends up lying to him in the course of trying to help him. Pete persuaded him to trust him, no easy task, and then threw it all away at the very moment he had a chance to save him. Sometimes we get expeditious when we need to slow down. We need to take the time to convince rather than be deceitful. Unfortunately life just throws too much crap through the fan for us to always do the right thing. We make mistakes.

And then there is Pearl and his son Benjamin. When Benjamin stumbles into town undernourished and in tattered clothes Pete has a kid where the needs are so obvious even he can’t screw it up or can he?

Let’s circle back around to the wife Beth.

”The loose beauty about her--the way her smile cracked across her face, her wide lopsided curls rigged into a bun that seemed liable to topple down--reminded him of a tooth about to come out, a button about to fall off. Everything about her always on the verge of falling down or out. Made a body want to screw her heart out. Even now. Even after she’d cheated on him and even though it still hurt like a purple bruise, he could see falling into bed with her. Just a look at her. The beer, eyebrow cocked, her condescending grin.
She said his name plain. Even that ached.”

Beth is the type of woman a man wants to be in the backseat with, beer breath making a plume every time tongues touch, rollicking down country roads hearing the gravel pinging in the wheel wells, and your heart beating like a loose ball bearing in your chest. ”The whole backseat a rolling cart of near to fuck.” She will make you forget yourself, stomping on your compass in the process. She will knock your center askew, permanently, from true North. She will make you batshit crazy.

Pete’s not that dissimilar, maybe just the male version. He still goes out with buddies when he needs to forget, gets drunk, ends up with women he wouldn’t give a second look to if he were sober. His father was a force of nature in the county, ruling without holding office, and casting an umbrella of protection around his sons that evaporates the moment he breathes his last. There is a whiff of landed gentry about Pete even though he tries his best to cast off any association with his own name. He expects women to want to sleep with him, and generally they do. As a social worker doors open for him that may have as much to do with his last name as it does with his own persistence. He denies who he is; and yet, he can’t be who he is without the father he had. One of those conundrums...most of us have them to varying degrees.

His wife moves to Texas taking their daughter Rachel with them. Pete is too passive, letting it all happen. It is only after they are truly gone that he starts to get an inkling of what he just gave up. His wife moves in with a trucker. Anybody ever heard of the expression ass, grass or gas nobody rides for free? Well I’ll let you decide which one Beth provides. The problem is Rachel is blossoming, just turned fourteen, and the revolving door of men that come through the house start to pay more attention to her than they do to Beth.

Rachel feels the power.

She also knows something critically important about her mom.

”Because her mother’s heart was wyoming, it was wyoming hard and she was days and years and maybe forever from a good man.”

Pete picks up with Mary, a fellow social worker and product of the system. She spent most of her life in foster care and bears the scars…”He reached across the table and got her wrist. A pair of hairline scars there too. He rubbed the groove they made. He didn’t think at all about why she’d done that. It was the past.” Pete is too worried about the present and not keeping an eye on the rearview mirror where the past is coming up fast. If the past is not dealt with and placed in a box wrapped in ribbon and notated with lessons learned then it is still just knocking around in your brain waiting for a new place to land.

It all lands hard when Rachel runs away from home.

Rachel picks up with a man, a boy really, playing pimp with dyed black hair and a penchant for manipulations. She gets busted doing something she thought was impossible to contemplate.

No. She volunteered nothing but her name. Rose Snow. She was a whore. Did they get it? They could put her in jail for all she cared. They could go ahead and shoot her in the head.

Pete finds Rachel/Rose just to lose her again. He sees enough of her to see the stark reality of his own failures. He ran a race with his daughter, but he took too many detours, and by the time he caught up with her she was past the tape and beyond him.

Pete Snow is a good man. I rode in the passenger seat with him for 467 pages through the Big Sky country of Montana, to the dusty plains of Texas and through the rain soaked city streets of Portland. I can attest to the fact that he is a good man, flawed, sometimes tilting at windmills, but ultimately trying to make a difference. Protocol becomes a harness that when it is finally flung aside allows Pete to finally start make a difference. The Pearls that I mentioned early, a man and a boy bound together through the religious madness of their wife/mother might be the final redemption for Pete.

I stepped out of my office door the other day to see if in some whiskey laced moment of craziness I had hung a shingle out. People come to me with their problems. I dispense wit and wisdom and sometimes with smug satisfaction feel like I’ve actually helped people. Reading this book and watching Pete fumble around, good intentions surrounding him like the dust devil around Pigpen, I realize that I rely too much on logic. It is a cold science, right and wrong are black and white. So many elements that we slice and dice away from a problem are the very things that make us human. When I should be listening I’m too busy pondering resolutions. Before offering solutions I would be better served to offer compassion. I’m not a priest, social worker, or a psychologist, but I am a person who can help. If I’m going to help I have a responsibility to make sure I do it in a way where I’m helping them more than I’m helping myself.

***4.5 stars out of 5***

If you wish to see more of my most recent book and movie reviews, visit http://www.jeffreykeeten.com
I also have a Facebook blogger page at:https://www.facebook.com/JeffreyKeeten
Profile Image for karen.
3,988 reviews170k followers
July 2, 2018

"We're not that bad...People fuck up. They get forgiven."

optimism is nice, but it's one thing to tell yourself that, and another to live in the real world.

pete snow lives in the real world. he works for the montana department of family services, where his territory covers a huge swathe of the rural backwoods of the state. the year is 1980, but there is a timelessness to this remote and undeveloped country which leaves its inhabitants untouched, somewhat exempt from the world at large.

pete bears witness to damaged families and the failures of the underfunded system as he encounters violence, drugs, child neglect and abuse, shotguns, poorly-trained dogs, trailers, and poverty on a daily basis.

at first, he seems to have an unflappable and professional mien - competent and good-intentioned, but as the plot progresses, we begin to see the strain his job is putting on him as his own life begins to unravel.

pete has been separated from his wife beth for some time when she suddenly announces that she is moving to texas and taking their thirteen-year-old daughter rachel with her. although not entirely to blame for the breakdown of the marriage, pete knows he has failed his family, and that he had, in some sort of misplaced attempt at atonement, ultimately sacrificed his relationship with them in order to channel his energies into rescuing other fractured families, a tactic his bitter daughter has noticed.

after they leave, pete drowns himself in alcohol and work and falls into the same excesses as many of his clients. adding to his personal problems are his brother luke, who is on the lam after assaulting his parole officer wes, who keeps visiting pete looking for luke and making veiled threats, the death of pete's estranged father, a boozy new romance with a troubled young woman named mary, and a self-destructive slide, falling into the bad habits of his youth.

in texas, beth is falling into her own bad habits, exposing rachel to her increasingly debauched lifestyle, and putting her in danger. when rachel runs away, it's the final contribution to this perfect storm of trouble in which pete struggles to maintain control.

into this storm wanders ben, a scrawny, near-feral eleven year old, who has been raised deep in the hills by his dangerous father jeremiah, who has been filling his head with his paranoid conspiracy theories and old testament bombast, while they await the end times. pete and jeremiah form a precarious relationship as pete tries to overcome jeremiah's mistrust to get food and medicine to ben.

pete is state-hopping trying to find his daughter, dealing with the difficult case of a seemingly unplaceable boy named cecil, dodging wes, trekking through the wilderness to keep tabs on ben and jeremiah, learning too much about mary, and drinking drinking drinking. throughout all these various pressures his professionalism begins to falter as he repeatedly witnesses the shortcomings of the system, and he becomes increasingly erratic, bending the rules to try to salvage just one thing in his unstable situation. but things fall apart, the center cannot hold, and mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, to misquote some yeats.

this all sounds very complicated, and it is, but the book's elements work smoothly together as the stories ebb and flow over one another, merging in unexpected ways. breaking up the chapters of pete and those he is trying to help, we have a series of interviews between rachel and an unknown interlocutor, and we learn about the consequences of her reckless decisions.

this is not a tidy story. you are allowed to see what you're allowed to see, and no more, as several characters are taken to a certain point without true closure. i love this technique, although it might be frustrating to some readers.

there are so many fantastic scenes which will resonate with me for a long time: ben's repulsive feet, the mount st. helens story, the story of the rest of the pearl family, the way pete's father died, pete's lament “I take kids away from people like us.”... it's all phenomenal and lasting.

i would have liked a little more clarity in the scenes of rachel's interview, though. i was never sure if it was a real interview or some kind of ongoing series of diary entries. there were too many times where the interviewer knew too many specific personal details for it to be an actual interview, but it was an important perspective to contribute to the other stories of children in dire situations.

overall, a fantastic debut with a broader and more sensitive viewpoint than typical in grit lit. write more books, please!

come to my blog!
Profile Image for Adina .
891 reviews3,556 followers
September 20, 2020
In my very short review I wrote that the novel feels very American. Yes, it is what at least an outsider sees a part of the US. Montana, remoteness, small towns, guns, a paranoid survivalist separated from the world, ultra-religious craziness, police violence, failure of social work system etc

I have no idea how this novel got on my TBR some time ago and even less how I bought it 4 years ago. What I know, is that it was time to read it or dump it. After going through the blurb I wasn’t very optimistic but it won me over from the 1st chapter. I both listened to it on Scribd and read it on Kindle and enjoyed both formats. Bonus, The MC’s daughter sounded ( to me) exactly like Ruth from Ozarks.

Pete Snow is a social worker who tries to help failed families while also failing his. He is divorce and his estranged daughter runs away from her mother. Pete is called to help an almost savage boy whose father is the paranoid survivalist I mentioned above, Jeremiah. They refuse all help because, obviously, everybody is trying to kill them. Finally, Pete gains Jeremiah’s feeble trust an builds a sort of friendship with him. At the same time, Pete struggles to find his daughter and retake some normality in his life. At the end of each chapter there is an interview with Sarah, the daughter, and an unknown interviewer, a stylistic artifice that worked very well although it felt strange at the beginning. With the help og that dialogue we get to learn more about the reasons that resulted in the runaway and what happened afterwards.

It is a sad story about family, love, loss. it is tough, lyrical, and it made me care for Pete although he made a lot of stupid decisions.

Original Review: Such an American book. I will try to clarify that statement in my upcoming review.
Profile Image for Richard (on hiatus).
160 reviews187 followers
June 4, 2020
Pete Snow is a social worker fighting a losing battle against the products of poverty, drugs, alcohol and ignorance. His patch is Tenmile, rural Montana - a depressed flyblown backwater surrounded by miles of blacktop, empty skies, snow topped mountains and the savage beauty of untracked wilderness. It’s the late 1970s in the era of Reagan and Carter.
Pete’s got a lot on his plate ........ an over full case load of broken families including Jeremiah, a paranoid survivalist and his young son, living rough in the woods and Cecil a thirteen year old tear-away with a small síster and a hopelessly addicted mother.
It doesn’t help that Pete is flirting with alcoholism and that his wife and child have upped sticks and left for a new life in Texas.
To cope with all this Pete needs to be sensible, clear headed and strong. He’s none of these, in fact you spend most of the book with your hands over your eyes, peaking out between your fingers muttering ‘no Pete, don’t do it!’ He does his best though, in his haphazard, heartfelt way and he’s a character it’s hard not to like.
Pete spends much of his time trying to make the best of a bad job ....... and failing. There are times when it seems things can’t get worse for him but you guess they probably will as his cases run against him and his love life disintegrates. Add to this a trail of murder, mayhem and manhunts and it all begins to look pretty explosive, as social work clashes violently with law enforcement.
Smith Henderson doesn’t shy away from any of the desperate human issues that go with poverty and addiction and he writes unflinchingly about homelessness, prostitution and abuse. Lives are stripped bare and the America described in these pages is as far away from the American Dream as another planet.
Tough, lyrical and frequently moving, Fourth Of July Creek may be an uncomfortable read ......... but I didn’t want it to end.
Profile Image for Paul Bryant.
2,219 reviews9,923 followers
December 28, 2014
How can this not be five stars?

It’s essentially a story about three lost children and this one guy’s attempt to find them. He’s a social worker. So we have a social-worker-as-alcoholic-fuckup hero. One of the kids he’s trying to save is his daughter. In the novel, it’s 1980, 81, 82, Carter into Reagan, and we’re in the wilderland of Montana where there’s a crackpot and his family, one of these millenarian swivel-eyed ranters about the gold standard and masons and the illegal government in Washington and how Roberto Calvi’s death by hanging from Blackfriars Bridge in London was precisely foretold in Revelations and is a portend of the End Times. Our social worker Pete Snow gets involved, gets fascinated, when the son of this family wanders into the playground of a school, intrigued by the sight of so many children he’s not related to.

This is a Big Statement novel, and I was reminded of that famous aside in Hendrix’s song Fire : “Move over, Rover, and let Jimi take over” because in this context Jonathan Franzen = Rover and Smith Henderson = Jimi. If Franzen is continually taking the psychological temperatures of his bedizened middle-class cohort and making neurotic notes and fretting here and fretting there, Henderson is showing us a whole other thing, a working-class world where everything is in a continual state of fuckedupness, people are careening like pinballs from one carcrash to the next, and if there are any notes on these terrible cases, Pete Snow, out of his brain as usual, has just opened his office window and hurled them out into the street, his daily anguished protest against the enormity of what happens to Americans without a safety net, where his social services department is the only one they’ve got, and you can see for yourself what state that’s in.

There’s a really chilling theme running like an evil undertow in this large novel : child sex. There are some offhand remarks about fostering and children’s homes indicating, as if this was such an open secret that it’s on a level with Santa Claus not being real, that foster parents and children’s home workers routinely had sex with the kids in their control – like, of course, jackass, what did you think? This is not pursued, it’s just there like background static, like the abstracted humming of all America’s paedophiles. Then there’s the fate of female runaways : they become hookers. We’re also given to understand that this is the way the world is. And what if they’re only 13, 14, 15? So much the better. Because the punters will love it. Another author would have made this the main plot, but here, it’s just part of the picture. I admired the coldness of that.

There’s going to be a tv mini-series for sure which will be a must-see for 2015 or 2016, and I’m predicting right now that the kid actress who gets the role of Rose Snow, Pete’s daughter, will be someone we never heard of and will knock us all out and will get the Golden Globe. For Jeremiah Pearl, there’s only one choice, but it’s too obvious, Daniel Day Lewis. A Globe is also waiting for that actor. And I was thinking Amy Ryan would be great as the drug fiend mother of Cecil, but it would be a retread of Helen McCready in Gone Baby Gone, in fact that’s why I thought of her, so sorry Amy, it has to be somebody else. You’d have been great.

Henderson’s style has come in for some comment. It’s in-your-face and sometimes it does have more than a tinge of the Cormac portentousness about it, but I think Henderson has really got his own voice going here. Here is Pete overwhelmed by what could have happened to his daughter:

When he went out in the chilled morning to his car, tiny handprints from some prior removal preserved in the frost on his windows promptly undid him. He slumped against the car door into the crusty snow and howled out griefs that had come on as sudden and frightening as earthquakes, and even after they emptied out, left him in fear of aftershocks, of unseen cracks in the load-bearing trestles of his mind.

And he’s fond of uncommon words :

He parked and circled the abandoned brick and granite structure. Stern bartizans like watchtowers.

The turkey vultures turned in slow circles, black and cruciate

Pearl spoke endlessly of catamounts. How they are the only creature that kills for sport.

They spent a day climbing up into the floor of a glacial cirque. They hiked an esker that cackled with snowmelt

Maybe you will think that stuff is overwritten, striving to impress, but for me it made this fictional world as real as pain. Where Smith Henderson came from I don’t know, but he’s here now. I recommend this novel to all of you.
Profile Image for Ron Charles.
1,050 reviews48.7k followers
August 4, 2016
If you fly in the rarefied air of literary awards, you may have caught Smith Henderson’s name a few years ago when he won a Pushcart Prize and a PEN Emerging Writers Award. A 41-year-old advertising writer originally from Montana, Henderson has published a few stories in literary magazines that, like exotic birds, are known to exist but are rarely spotted.

Those days of obscurity are over. His first novel, “Fourth of July Creek,” is the best book I’ve read so far this year. On a gamble that seems sure to pay off, his publisher is releasing 100,000 copies, and he’s working on a TV adaptation. The product of more than a decade’s work, this richly plotted novel is another sign, if any were needed, that new fiction writers are still telling vibrant, essential stories about the American experience.

In so many ways, the story Henderson tells here describes an American experience most of us never have to see — but should. Far from big cities or either coast, his characters are the poor and working poor in sparsely populated towns that few escape and no one ever moves to. For these people, who spend every cent they earn, a layoff, an illness, even a ­car-repair bill can collapse a whole family, and the ones most violently upended by those misfortunes are children.

Pete Snow, the protagonist of “Fourth of July Creek,” knows such children well. A social worker in Montana in the early 1980s, he belongs to that class of municipal servants who show up as the police handcuff a raging father or the medics zip Mom’s needle-marked body into a bag. While the sheriff carries a gun, Pete wields his clipboard. Armed only with free diapers and soup cans, he stares down proud, angry parents who are contemptuous of big government but hungry for government aid. Dazed by the infinite creativity of sexual abuse but blessed with the dexterity of hope, he keeps struggling to make damaged families work. One day he has to remind a young mother that her baby can’t feed itself; another day, he’s got to convince a faithful man that sin didn’t poison his wife. And none of this often-futile work takes place on anything like a predictable schedule: The law may dawdle for months over what to do with an addict, but her little girl needs a safe place to sleep tonight.

The social worker is a tempting figure to beatify, and God knows these low-paid, overburdened people deserve all the veneration we can give them. But Henderson, who once worked at a group home for juveniles, is too fine a writer to set a wooden saint at the center of his novel. Instead, he gives us a flawed and wounded hero. Pete may save others, but he can’t hold his own family together. He’s left his adulterous wife and bitter teenage daughter and now lives in a cabin without electricity; he showers at the courthouse. When his no-good brother appeals for help, Pete tells him, “Will you just get back in your truck and go?” The endless labor of patching up desperate strangers provides a comforting way to ignore his own derelict life. As he drunkenly admits one night to his wife, “I take kids away from people like us.”

Like those other ad-men-turned-novelists Peter Carey and Salman Rushdie, Henderson knows how to create the sensation that we’re being propelled through a story that’s just as poignant as it is frightening. Infused with psychological complexity and lush with the landscape of the Northwest, the novel barrels along with the chaotic demands of Pete’s job and family, from crisis to crisis to quiet scenes of despair. At unexpected moments, the narration shifts briefly into the second person, placing us right in Pete’s life. And that larger story is interrupted by snippets of dialogue between two unnamed figures talking about the harrowing plight of Pete’s daughter. It’s a complex structure that could easily grow unwieldy, but Henderson choreographs these parts so masterfully that the novel is never less than wholly engaging.

Pete’s most challenging case, which becomes the story’s focus, involves a scurvy 11-year-old boy who wanders up to a school playground and speaks “in the clipped cadence of a POW, announcing at one point that he’d renounced his citizenship.” Returning the boy to his home in the forest, Pete meets the boy’s dad, a survivalist named Jeremiah Pearl. And so begins a perilous relationship between these two troubled fathers, each trying to save his own child from the evils of the world.

Pearl — “Tribulation-ready, Race War-ready” — seems at first a spooky Gothic creature, slipping silently through the woods, spending coins with holes punched in the presidents’ heads. But illuminated by Henderson’s sympathy, this tortured zealot becomes both victim and villain, an endlessly fascinating character caught in the confluence of personal tragedy and America’s darkest fears. Here is the millennial complex in full bloom, the craziest, most poisonous expression of anti-government paranoia fueled by a corrupted brand of Christianity. Obsessed with tangled biblical prophecies, Pearl announces, “I am dynamite” and hunkers down with his guns and his gold. The last thing he’ll accept is some godless social worker trying to tempt his children with the devil’s medicine.

But Pete is determined to serve families wherever they are, no matter how loopy they may seem. And in a similar way, this novel is engaged in the hard work of understanding people we usually write off in disgust. Pursued by the four horsemen of ignorance, poverty, drugs and illness, who wouldn’t think the Apocalypse is nigh? As Pete’s personal life spirals out of control, Pearl’s radical break from civilization offers an alluring kind of solace, a relief from his complicated failings. But can Pete win the anarchist’s trust before he sparks a deadly confrontation with government officials, who suffer from their own brand of paranoia?

All week I was looking for opportunities to slip back into these pages and follow the trials of this rural social worker. The greatness of “Fourth of July Creek” stems from Henderson’s ability to subtly tie the struggles of one ordinary man to the broader currents of American culture, both its blessings and its evils. The result is a story that is simultaneously intimate and grand, written in a style athletic enough to capture a spectacular range of harrowing events. These may be the End Times for Jeremiah Pearl, but they’re just the beginning for Smith Henderson.

From The Washington Post:
Profile Image for Shelby *trains flying monkeys*.
1,607 reviews5,994 followers
September 30, 2014
I may cry.

I wanted this book from the minute I saw the first blurb about it. I've drooled for it. Then I start reading it.
I wasn't crazy about it. What is wrong with me!? I love this type of book. Gritty, dark and the souls of the characters are laid bare.
Still didn't like it.

The writing for me..and this should not stop anyone from reading it, was choppy and uneven. Half the time I didn't know what was going on or which character was being discussed.

I think I'm gonna troll my damn self for being a hater. Why??!! Stupid Evil Queen Wannabe.

Profile Image for Jen CAN.
506 reviews1,488 followers
July 27, 2015
Raw, gut wrenching and heartbreaking. Midwest America - outside the city limits exists poverty, homelessness, addiction, crime and abuse. Much less resources to help those in need. Pete Snow is a social worker living day to day attempting to protect and remove children from abusive homes. He is an alcoholic - unable to deal with the stress in his job as well as within his own life; trying instead to make it better for others at the cost of losing touch with his own daughter, who becomes a runaway and starts living the life of these children he is trying to protect. Henderson creates a character and story we can unfortunately, relate to. 5 stars.
Profile Image for Greg.
1,117 reviews1,878 followers
December 10, 2013
There are quite a few damn good books coming out in 2014 by fairly unknown authors, this is one of them.

This is rural fuckedupness right up there with the Donald Ray Pollock and Daniel Woodrell.

It's 1980, Carter is about to be ousted from the White House, Reagan's on the rise, and in a small town in Montana a long-haired social worker is about to be in the center of a whole lot of disturbing shit. Shitty families, drugs, alcohol, fringe Christians with radical libertarian economic ideas, criminals, violence and despair. It's all here, and it's not the shiny era that the Hollywood smiles Ronnie was ushering in.

In a way this book is a lot like Suttree, if Suttree had a job that was trying to help people out, but still Suttree in that he does a fairly piss poor job of helping himself out. There might not be pumpkin fucking going on here, but Henderson adds some of his own incidents that will leave you going, do people seriously do shit like this? Honey bottles?

I read this for this thing that I do, where I feel inclined to read for sheer quantity over necessarily taking my time to enjoy a book, but this one made me want to stop every now and then just so that I wouldn't finish it too quickly.

I don't want to say too much about this, the way the story unfolds is quite good and it's not my place to give too much away. But if you like that fucked up Appalachian kind of grit-lit that's been coming out lately you'll want to get your hands on this. So good, and yet another example that literature isn't in any danger of decreasing in quality.
Profile Image for Elyse Walters.
4,010 reviews623 followers
April 6, 2015
WARNING....YOU LOOSE!! I'm bummed!!!!!!

I lost my-BRILLIANT-first review!

Being a social worker must be one of the most thankless jobs in the world.

Pete Snow -social worker has more challenging cases on his plate than one man should have to handle alone.
How do you help 6 kids living in the woods -who need food -clothing -education-love -(really need help), --but their dad does not want you to come near them? And if you do --your own life may be in physical danger?
How do you help the teen kid who keeps acting-out? The kid who keeps getting tossed out from home to home? How to you try to tell him that if he keeps his behavior up of not following rules -dis-respecting adults completely --that he will end up in a facility?. How do you have that kid see --that if he goes into a facility --as a teen --he will most likely get worst --and become a BAD MAN?

How does Pete sleep at night given his own problems? His ex wife cheated on him (that relationship is over). She screams at him ..."just mail a check"..."YOUR daughter needs clothes, school supplies, etc.
His 14 year old daughter is angry at him, too, (that relationship isn't working). All she seems to say to her dad on the phone is, "mom says to send a check".
Pete is 'trying' to be involved and help his daughter (happy to send the check) --but he wants to see her --add support to her life.
GOOD LUCK, 'DAD'. The wife and daughter just moved 4 hours away to Texas. Try to get your social work job done and be a father to a teen 4 hours away! At some point --he discovers --the 'check' he sends is sure not going for school. The daughter hasn't been in school She runs away.
At this point --I wanted to run away too...
I think Pete wanted to run-a-way. He 'did' begin to drink an awful lot -- and hey--he would engage in sex anytime he could...(anything to check out a little)!

None of the family relationships in Pete's life are easy-flowing...

Heck, even a dog attack's Pete. A Rottweilers jaws clacking at Pete's hands. (that wasn't working either)

Pete lives in a cabin with no electricity. (He doesn't seem to care that 'heat' in his house isn't working either).

So.....With soooooo many challenges for PETE SNOW....
He's a man I wanted to cheer for. My heart was breaking for him. The guy was trying to make a difference.....its 'creative-on-the-job-training'! His plate was over-flowing --He was amazing....as this book was...as this author is!

Powerful novel! At least one of the top 10-best I've read in the past few years! ....Rural Montana --(small town community with 10 bars in town -4 cafes, 1 courthouse, a couple of pastors, couple of Churches, a lawyer, and memorable characters.).....and a lot of people needing help!

Profile Image for Theresa.
232 reviews143 followers
June 23, 2017
Disturbing, dark, intense, heartbreaking, ambitious, and masterfully written. Smith Henderson has a fascinating and twisted imagination. I hope to read more from this gifted author in the near future. "Fourth of July Creek" is depressing as hell but well worth the 400+ journey into the fucked-up psyche of an alcoholic, faith-deprived, but well-intentioned social worker, Pete Snow. Set in the early '80s in rural Montana. Get ready for a bumpy ride! Enjoy.
Profile Image for LeeAnne.
291 reviews210 followers
August 7, 2018
Fourth of July Creek
by Smith Henderson

Simultaneously Beautiful and Ugly

"Having children makes you no more a parent than having a piano makes you a pianist." - Michael Levine

My friend Derek described this book by saying:

"This book is beautifully written, but it's making me feel dirty all over. If grunge was a book genre, that's what I'd call this one. Very, very grungy."

I couldn't have said it better! The writing is so beautiful and eloquent, even though the harsh lives of these characters are very ugly and grim.

This dark, gritty story centers on the underbelly of rural Montana. We meet a small population of uneducated, sordid, alcoholics and junkies who live a life of salacious debauchery and raise their children in ramshackle squalor and filth. If you could airlift Appalachia’s poor and destitute to rustic Montana, throw in a lot of sex and drugs, the characters in this book are the people you would meet.

Pete Snow is a child services social worker trying to rescue abused and malnourished kids. One of his young clients is the son of a religious survivalist who is extremely suspicious of the government and convinced the Rapture is going to occur any day. You quickly learn that Pete’s own life is even more screwed up than most of his clients. Pete is a good, well-meaning person and I had a lot of sympathy for him but he is self-destructive, lacks common sense and has terrible judgment. He’s also a drunk and an absentee father who failed his only daughter. His estranged wife is even more of a mess; an alcoholic sexpot who is growing envious of her daughter’s budding sexuality. Yet Pete leaves his vulnerable daughter to be raised by this sad, hopeless woman. Instead of focusing on his own child, Pete spends all of his time driving around rural Montana trying to rescue feral children trapped with dysfunctional, abusive parents, while his daughter’s life slowly circles the drain.

The writing is so beautiful and picturesque even though the subject matter is very unattractive, which I know sounds like a dichotomy, but this talented author somehow makes it work.
Profile Image for Diane S ☔.
4,783 reviews14.2k followers
June 26, 2014
Tenmile, Montana, a desolate town located in the western corner of the Rockies, a town of last resort for many. The people here are running to or running from, living an existence both squalid and desperate. Pete Snow is the lone social worker for this town, he has basically no oversight and not much support. He meets the dregs of society, druggies, people who live in and associate with filth, and the children of these people, victims of various ages with various scars, internal and external. But nothing has prepared him for the survivalist and apocalyptic Pearl and his son.

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.
Profile Image for Carol.
835 reviews500 followers
August 11, 2015
The Hook - The reviews, pure and simple.

The Line“Wild mushrooms and carpets of moss and bumblebees turning figure eights in the slashes of sun in the woods, as if they too are stupefied by the beauty of the place.”

The Sinker – Why is that some of the best books are the hardest to describe? Breathe in, breathe out and try.

Pete Snow’s territory and caseload are both huge often leaving him feeling ineffective in his work for DFS (Department of Family Services) in the vast landscape of 1980’s Tenmile, Montana. Fourth of July Creek quickly draws you into Pete’s world with a graphic fight between an alcoholic mother and her teen son, Cecil. You immediately see the futility of what Pete can and cannot do as he performs his duties. Though Pete places Cecil in foster care, he leaves Katie, his sister, in this wreck of a home described so well in its pallor. You ache when all Pete can find for Katie to eat is noodles he douses with ketchup. Before we know it we jump to the next case when Benjamin, a young kid living in the hills, comes to town to scrounge whatever in dumpsters and somehow ends up on school grounds in a confrontation with the principal. Pete is eventually allowed to escort him home. It’s with a sense of dread that we meet Benjamin’s father, Jeremiah Pearl, at first seemingly just a mountain man who scorns society. We soon learn he is far more sinister and far more unhinged than that. A religious fanatic with paranoid tendencies that the government and FBI are out to get him, he is one scary character. Pearl’s wife and other many children are gone and Pete is not able to determine the where or the why. Pete tries to help, leaving medication and food and over time slowly builds a relationship with father and son, no easy task.

Did I mention Pete comes with his own set of baggage? He’s a heavy drinker, has a brother on the lamb, a father who clearly sneers at him for his choices, an ex-wife with skeptical morals and a daughter, Rachel, whom he loves but has little meaningful connection with. It makes me wonder how Pete can help others when his own life is so pitifully flawed. Yet his intentions seem good if not always legal. To add insult to injury his ex flees the state with Rachel. Pete is bitter and angry. The real kicker comes when Rachel runs away and Pete tries to find her while continuing to balance that caseload.

Rachel’s story is the hardest for me to hear. You might imagine why Rachel’s (Rose now) runs away from her mother’s life of sex, drugs, alcohol and men. Rose’s story is told in a third party interrogation that is brutal. She ”wyoms”, a term she uses to describe how she gets out of her head and out to open spaces, sometimes terming it wyoming.

”It was Wyoming, which means to drive forever through ugly shrubscape the color of dirty pennies. It was just wyoming along. They were wyoming forever. You could wyom all day and not make any progress. To wyom was to go from nowhere to nowhere. Through nowhere. To see nothing. To do nothing but sit. You turn on the radio and wyom through the dial slowly, carefully in search of a sliver of civilization only to find a man talking about the piece of stock animals and feed. You listen to a dour preacher wyoming about your bored and dying and wyoming soul.”

There is little to make you feel good here, dysfunction abounds. Fourth of July Creek is a very dark and dreary read but it is so well done that this reader was mesmerized. Smith Henderson has produced one of the best debuts I’ve read in quite some time. It has detailed characters that jump off the page and demanded my attention. I cared about them and rooted for their survival. The setting is atmospheric, the locale enough so, but the living spaces blaze with life. It’s not a quick read, it demands some commitment coming in at almost 466 pages or 13 audio discs, but I was never bored.

I listened to Fourth of July Creek expertly, dually narrated by MacLeod Andrews and Jenna Lamia. Andrews brings alive Pete, Jeremiah, Benjamin and Cecil with variation in tone so each character is unique and which is speaking is evident. Lamia portrays the troubled Rachel with a subtle interpretation, matter of fact in its delivery that is almost eerie to hear.

There are many fine reviews of Fourth of July Creek, both here and in the professional realm. Read some, read the book. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.
Profile Image for Barbara**catching up!.
1,398 reviews804 followers
September 9, 2015
Gritty, intense, heart-wrenching, bleak…….all these describe my thoughts on this fine novel. I found Smith Henderson’s prose to be mesmerizing. His story is dark while his writing style is beautiful.

The protagonist, Pete Snow, is a well-meaning, self-destructive, social worker in a poor rural area in Montana. He takes his work with the children very seriously. His personal life however, is spiraling out of control (due to his own sabotaging). He finds himself in the midst of a huge US government domestic terrorist sting when trying to help a malnourished 11-year-old boy. Meanwhile, his 14-year-old daughter, Rachel, runs away from his estranged wife. The reader learns of her escapades through chapters that are written like a third party interrogation of her. Her life as a runaway left me heartbroken and profoundly sad. In his acknowledgments, Henderson gives thanks to researchers and social workers in Texas and Montana. This reader thinks that the adventures of Rachel are authentic stories of runaways. Rachel’s biggest need is to appear mature, and this need gets her in a load of tribulations. Social workers around the country will adore this novel for it’s illumination into the sometimes futility of their work. God bless the social workers of this country.

This novel is bleak. It’s not to be read without this in mind because if the reader wants a light and airy book, they will miss the beauty of this fine novel. There are many themes that Henderson explores in this work such as alcoholism, family, community, trust, religious zealots, and government intervention. There is much to ponder. Henderson chose the best quote to begin his book. It’s from Henry David Thoreau: “If I knew for a certain’ty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life.” That, in a sentence defines this novel. Perfect quote. I highly recommend it for everyone because it illuminates the struggles of social workers and the lives of runaways. After reading this, you won’t see either in the same light. Plus, Henderson’s writing is phenomenal. I look forward to his next work.
Profile Image for Karen.
594 reviews1,196 followers
July 1, 2016
I read this a couple years ago and it somehow got removed from my list...anyway, wonderful book.. Poor Pete, a social worker, he went through some unbelievable situations..you will love this book
Profile Image for Michael.
1,094 reviews1,541 followers
November 18, 2014
This one blew me away with its passion and poetry from the soul of a social worker in rural Montana in the early 80’s. Pete works for child protective services in a remote region in the northwestern part of the state near Glacier National Park. People live here for the freedom that isolation brings, but the dangers there make the interdependence within the community especially important. Many people are humane nature lovers or competent salt-of-the-earth types; others are nuts, survivalists, or criminals hiding out. Pete works with all walks of life in trying to find solutions for children at risk. He has to make many tough choices, often making placements that fail the trust he tries to build with the kids, and he frequently takes great personal risks dealing with parents who violently resist his interference.

His most compelling case concerns the welfare of an 11-year old boy Ben, who is living in care of his religious fanatic father, Jeremiah Pearl, on the run in the wilderness. He believes the end times are near and is paranoid of any conventional authority. He seems to have some scheme to expose a federal monetary conspiracy by distributing coins with holes punched in them. Pete braves his violence and guns to try to help Ben, and works over time to gain enough trust to check on the status of Jeremiah’s wife and several other kids. The interest of the FBI and other federal agencies in Jeremiah as a suspect in domestic terrorism makes it more difficult and dangerous for Pete to resolve the mystery of Jeremiah and fate of his family.

The writing is fresh and constantly surprising in its interplay between third-person and second-person narrative, interspersing of dialog and dreams, and breaks into omniscient visions or imagined interviews with unknown authority who knows everything Pete is afraid to know. Here is a wonderful early riff that summarizes the scope of Pete’s work:

Your caseload is brutal and will get worse and the holidays steadily advance on the poor, deranged and demented. Kids waiting with cops in the living room or the front seat of a squad car to stay out of the cold until you arrive. You run the children up to the crisis shelter in Kalispell. There aren’t many beds. You have twenty-four hours to find a placement. … But as always the calls are mostly bullshit. Ninety-five percent. Landlords ratting out noisy alcoholic tenants. Divorcees fighting over Christmas morning custody. Visit the little studio apartments or a trailer or a yurt up in the sticks. Confirm that there are Cheerios in the cupboard, frozen juice in the freezer, blankets, winter coats, and mittens in the hall closet. Ignore the bong hastily covered with a bandana and write out an action plan and get the hag with stained teeth and her balding homunculus to sign it and fare-thee-well out the door. Don’t even bother with the paperwork for the state office because by then there are three new cases to replace that one. …You have a backlog of real cases to work into your real rotation, cases that are as slow to close as infected wounds. …Yes, you have bigger fish to fry than potheads and mileage reimbursement. Newly suicided fathers and their wreckage. The mother who calls your office wondering if you could take her child, God is telling her to kill him, you better hurry. Cecil in the fresh hell of Pine Hills. …
And the Pearls. Living on pinecones and squirrel gizzards waiting for Armageddon with their coin-scoring, apocalyptic old man. …And circle back to your own life, like a pair of headlights in the rearview late at night, some trouble tailing you on the black highway.

Despite his heroism, Pete struggles with his own demons and failures. The breach in his relationship with his parents, his broken marriage, his escape into heavy drinking and casual sex, and the frustration in keeping a meaningful connection with is teenaged daughter. A crisis emerges early on in this tale when his ex-wife decides to run off to Texas with an irresponsible lover, dragging his daughter Rachel into unknown perils associated with her reckless lifestyle. Soon his fears become real when he learns she has run away. Much of the book alternates between Pete desperately trying to solve the mystery of the fate of is 14-year old daughter and ongoing work on the case of Ben and Jeremiah. There is much heartbreak here, and I was totally caught up in rooting for Pete to find a pathway for his humanity to be fulfilled. The reader gets to spend a lot of time from the perspective of the daughter as she makes her way from city to city, getting involved in all the things parents most fear. Pete can only imagine. We can’t blame him for occasional binges:

He is shook.
He is in another room.
He is peeing in a closet.
He is peeing in someone’s bed.
He is peeing into a bottle in a car, missing, pissing on the floor.
He is among many angry strangers.
He is walking on the roadside under a transom of falling stars, the sky streaked in a kind of agony, white grooves, his eyes can’t brake their casters.

At one point he is drinking with his ex-wife, Beth, and she raises the painful issues of what they did wrong. He is led to the harsh conclusion that, “I take kids away from people like us.” It is so true that many people see the intervention of social workers as a shameful retribution, a judgment for their failures. Beth ups the ante with this painful analogy:

I feel like I’ve been busted. Like the cops have pulled me over. Like God has pulled me over and I got to sit here with my hands at ten and two and I got to get right or something or something gonna happen to Rachel—if it hasn’t already. It’s God who’s the social worker, Pete. And he’s taken our kid away, you know?”

Later, Pete has a dream of being the geography of the mountain West and of harboring spirits of people who don’t exist. Its conclusion is a fitting summary of his life’s work and an overriding theme of this powerful book:

He dreamed that we all contain so many masses and that people are simple potentialities, instances, cases. That all of life can be understood as casework. That DFS was a kind of priesthood.
Profile Image for Carol.
1,370 reviews2,157 followers
July 15, 2014
Honestly, I was 200 pages in and still did not care for this dark and dismal story, but slowly as I kept reading, I came to appreciate social worker Pete Snow's heroic efforts and his plight to help those in need in the harsh Montana wilderness while struggling with his own insurmountable family issues.

Be forewarned, there are a multitude of descriptive sexual situations and other deplorable acts for those weak at heart, and this is not a feel good book by any means, yet at times, (thankfully) there is a little hope.

Overall, a thumbs up for Smith Henderson's debut novel.

Profile Image for Jill.
1,190 reviews1,692 followers
May 20, 2014
Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose in Fourth of July Creek, an unflinching look into the complexities and contradictions of liberty, justice and freedom for all – Montana style.

But first, a word of caution: readers who feel compelled to seek out likeable characters or who shun stories with an overriding bleak vision would be well advised to skip this book. It is unrelentingly dark and full of moral ambiguity.

At the center of the novel is Pete, an unlikely long haired social worker in Tenmile, Montana, who has made a mess of marriage and fatherhood. His recalcitrant brother is on the lam, and he can’t even count his friends on one hand. He describes himself this way to his ex-wife: “I take kids away from people like us.”

When a pre-teen, partially feral boy – Benjamin Pearl – crosses his path, he becomes involved in the lives of the boy and his mistrustful father, Jeremiah, a paranoid survivalist who believes in the End of Days and the evilness of the government. (“The devil, I know how he comes. With cans of food and fresh clothes and coloring books.”)

As Pete tries to help Jeremiah and Benjamin and another out-of-control boy, Cecil, the son of an abusive mother, his own daughter dives into the underbelly of an uncaring and evil world. As one of the boys disappears into the system and the other into the Montana wilderness, the realization comes to light that “these absences were twinned in Pete’s mind as if the one could not be solved without the other, and he harbored the absurd hope that the revelation of the one would reveal the other.”

Fourth of July Creek has a lot to say about a lot of issues: where is the thin line between those who want to help and those who shun society’s help? Is protection always the right thing if it means sacrificing liberty and being forced into faulty institutional venues? Are we – quite literally – our brothers’ keepers? Do we have a right to legislate – or even interfere with – those who live outside of the norm, even if they choose a life of paranoia?

The writing is confident – brilliant in places – but not for the faint of heart. As an interesting aside, Smith Henderson, a debut author, wrote the Emmy-nominated Super Bowl commercial “Halftime in America” (featuring Clint Eastwood).

Profile Image for Ed.
597 reviews71 followers
July 15, 2014

Well, right away have to chalk this up to being unsure if he's read the same book as everyone else -- or maybe just another case of bad timing (possibly/potentially right book at the wrong time/mood)? Getting the rating out of the way, it's a rounded-up 3 star "good" book, but unofficially 2.5 stars for just being on the fence about "liking" it.

It is a grim, dark, bleak, gritty -- almost relentlessly so -- novel of dysfunction, violence, and abuse in rural Montana. This did not stop me from liking the novel, but it didn't exactly encourage me to want to pick up the book at every/any available moment. Thus I never felt like I had much/any momentum with it and it took me about halfway to get into it -- a bit too late to recover for me, but enough to soldier on.

I did like the lead character of Pete Snow, an anti-hero-ish social worker with a life that needs some serious social-work itself (definitely "physician heal thyself" territory) and likewise there were interesting characters and situations, but overall I wished the novel was tighter -- too much bloat or perhaps "wyoming," to use an oft-quote word from the book. Also, the subplot written in a Q&A format, always jolted me out of the narrative and just seemed and ineffective, if a bit gimmicky, way to tell that particular story.

I also found myself wondering about things. How could Pete just pick-up and leave town (granted for good reasons) for extended periods of time? What about his other social cases? Given the stuff we knew about in his territory, there had to be more? Likewise, not sure how he could afford it either. I am quite willing to suspend reality/belief, but it is never a good sign when my mind wanders off to this kind of stuff while reading a novel.

I will remember this novel for the wonderfully flawed-character of Pete. Again, found the writing competent -- but none of the many superlatives I see as I am skimming through the mostly glowing reviews. So, what I am most left with is wondering what I missed, though I don't plan to spend too much time worrying about. One of the great things about books is how they resonate differently with each person. Another great thing, there's always another one waiting in the wings. Onward!
Profile Image for Snotchocheez.
595 reviews336 followers
May 6, 2015
This was certainly worth the wait...

Once I heard about Fourth of July Creek coming out in mid-2014 I knew (I could bet a pop...as in soda-) this would be for me. Not that I'm all that all that enamored of the Big Sky State (it's one of my least-favorite states of the Union, really, with endless 100 mile-long drives just to get to the next town, with towns having little more than three {Protestant} churches...and ten taverns, and really bad diner food), but there's just something about novels set in Montana that really appeal to me (The last two novels I read that were set there, the mixed-reviewed Canada by Richard Ford and the YA heart-render The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily Danforth each got five stars from me). When I heard the protag of this was deeply flawed (I'm a sucker for shlubs and losers), this seemed a can't-miss.

Indeed it was terrific. I don't know anything about author Smith Henderson (other than this seems to be his debut novel, though you'd never know it) but this guy sure can write. This novel is so substantive it could fill two, perhaps even three novels, without a whiff of filler. I was riveted throughout the entire book.

it all starts with that aforementioned flawed ptrotag, Pete Snow: by no means a loser but plenty problem-ridden. Consider his profession: social work (specialty: Child Protective Services) in a chronically poor logging town (Tenmile, Montana); a place (in the early 1980s, anyway, if not even today) mistrusting of government and its intrusions, but desperately in need of its services. Further irony: Despite Pete's calling to save children from neglectful families, he (along with his soon to be ex-wife Beth) is a raving alcoholic, and a terrible parent to his troubled teen daughter.

The story follows Pete from neglect call to neglect call trying to save these kids in the community while trying to keep his own life together. Sound bleak and boring? It's not. (Okay, yeah, certainly a little bleak watching Pete fight what seems like a losing battle, but never boring. (This story is practically bursting at the seams of.its rattiest, hand-me-downiest parka with plot threads that guarantee to keep your attention glued)).

It becomes immediately apparent that this is Henderson's life work. He knows every inch of the (often recidivist, often ineffectual) child protection system. The story he's woven here, with Pete Snow as his intermediary (trying desperately to atone for his familial mistakes while trying to right society's shortfall to its children totally wrecked me. (in the best way possible. Stylistically, it's a wee bit grandiose, streaked with flights of creative fancy, but I dare you to read this and not come away affected in some way. Highly recommended
Profile Image for Camie.
916 reviews193 followers
August 9, 2017
Pete Snow is an unlikely but good hearted DFS agent who is charged with the care of some pretty interesting families in the small Montana town Tenmile, near 4th of July Creek. The most challenging being the almost feral Benjamin Pearl who is living in the wild with his fanatically religious and Apocalypse preparing family, most namely his father Jeremiah Pearl. Trouble is brewing as Pete's marriage implodes, his teenage daughter becomes a runaway, his brother evades his parole officer, and his own alcoholism looms large. There's not much freedom near the creek named after independence as poverty, abuse, corrupt cops,substance abuse, and other tough conditions wreak havoc in the lives of most every character here and right from the start you fear things will not be going well. I did like this book enough to finish it, though it was sometimes a bit too graphic and often bleak, underneath it all runs the slightest trickle of hope that imperfect people, just trying to get by, will possibly be able to do the right thing.
3 stars
Profile Image for Kelli.
851 reviews403 followers
August 23, 2015
I finished the audio of this book a few days ago and I'm still at a loss to properly describe it. The story feels epic...it feels like it could become a classic...it feels enormous and heavy and important but at the same time, it meanders (wyoms?) along in this very specific voice, relating a story that is just a story. The writing is like nothing I have ever read and I am loath to describe it. Intricate, unique, masterful writing. One-of-a-kind writing.

The narration could not possibly have been better. Though I found this depressing, I would still highly recommend the audio. The words and the worlds they create are magical. This is a story you feel. 5 stars.
Profile Image for Rebecca.
3,677 reviews2,668 followers
February 2, 2016
“I go into homes all the time and I save children. It’s what I do for a living, you see? And I didn’t save my own daughter.”

(3.5) If I take nearly a year over a novel, stopping and starting, that’s usually a bad sign. But I forced myself to finish this one, just like I did with The Orphan-Master’s Son by Adam Johnson. In the end my feelings were roughly similar, too: I appreciated the skill behind Henderson’s writing but never fully warmed to it. This is the story of Pete Snow, a Montana social worker in the early 1980s. His cases are uniformly distressing, but the one that most captivates his attention is Benjamin Pearl, raised in the wilderness by his father Jeremiah, a fundamentalist anarchist who drills holes in coins to show his antipathy to the government.

Since his wife and their teenage daughter Rachel left for Texas, Pete has been adrift in a fog of alcohol and sex, driving obsessively between remote locations in an attempt to save his doomed clients and criminal brother. When Rachel runs away, though, life’s dangers come home to Pete for the first time: “He’d seen so much suffering, but he’d only ever suffered it secondarily. To have it fresh and his own. The scope of it. He’d had no idea. He’d known nothing.” His search for his daughter is what saved the book for me. However, what actually happens to Rachel I found melodramatic, and how it’s narrated – through a third-person rendering of an interview, rather than a you/I back-and-forth – seemed odd.

Indeed, there are unusual narration choices throughout, such as the occasional second-person phrase in reference to Pete. The prose style is by turns fragmentary (as the above lines attest) and expansive, as in this long, alliterative sentence:

Shattered chants and ceaseless invective morph into a nearly simian cacophony of hoots and throaty shrieks as a white cloud of gas composes and insinuates itself into the small crowd that yet churns forward from the rear and backward from the front as the agitators break into two scattering bodies, fanning and choking and wild-eyed, coursing up and down the road.

Ultimately I found this novel to be very hard work. The one scene I’ll remember most clearly is Pete and the Pearls stumbling on a pile of animals, from a raccoon right up to a black bear, that were all killed by a downed telephone wire. I’d recommend this if you’re a dedicated reader of dirty realism and you accept the violence and the detached writing style that genre tends to involve. If not, you should probably start somewhere else, like with Ron Rash or David Vann.

Ever since Sufjan Stevens’s Carrie and Lowell came out, I can’t help but hear his song “Fourth of July” in my head when I think about this book: “What did you learn from the Tillamook Burn and the Fourth of July? We’re all gonna die.” It’s that oppressive, depressing, even apocalyptic atmosphere I’ll return to when I think about this book. Fourth of July Creek – a real place in Montana – is nowhere I’ll want to revisit.

(Originally published on my blog, Bookish Beck.)

I was delighted to win a free copy through a Goodreads First Reads giveaway.
Profile Image for Darlene.
370 reviews133 followers
June 28, 2017
There are several story lines occurring simultaneously in this novel, Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson and in the end, all lines converge and a bigger picture is revealed. The story takes place in the early 1980's in a small town .. so very small, in fact, that it really isn't map worthy.. the town of Tenmile, Montana.

Narrating the story is Pete Snow, a social worker for the Department of Family Services. Pete is one of my favorite types of characters… multi-faceted and complex…. he is a social worker with a big, generous heart and certainly well-intentioned; however, it doesn't escape your attention that in many ways, Pete's personal life seems to mirror the lives of his clients . Estranged from his family and trying to come to terms with his wife Beth's abandonment which has left Pete also struggling with the enforced separation from his daughter, Rachel.. Pete spends his days (and often many nights as well), trying to assist families in dealing with their own despair and chaotic,desperate lives.

Pete's involvement with one family in particular is demonstrative of the chaos he observes on a daily basis. Pete's life becomes entwined with that of a troubled teen named Cecil. Cecil has been involved in one scrape after another with law enforcement and is looking at 'doing time' in a juvenile detention facility unless Pete can work out a solution for the family. Cecil lives in a household with a substance abusing mother and a younger sister, Kate. Cecil's mother appears to not possess the wherewithal to deal with her OWN life, never mind the care of her children. Pete's description of this overwhelmed and self-absorbed woman is insightful and perhaps a bit cynical… 'The mother collected unemployment but her full-time occupation was self-pity. She slippered around the house in sweatpants and smoked a lot of weed and took speed and tugged her hair over her face in a shape pleasing and temporary ….. and smiled prettily for herself and discovered nothing in the mirror to recommend her to anybody or anything.'

The story follows Pete from one day to the next.. from one downtrodden family to the next.. feeling his anxiety and hopelessness over just how little he is able to affect meaningful and lasting change in his own life and in that of his clients. Finally, Pete meets a boy named Benjamin Pearl and this meeting takes him on a road he had never before traveled, coming face to face with extremist thought and religious zealotry. Benjamin Pearl is a malnourished, nearly wild 11 year old boy living in the wilderness with his family… a family headed by a wild eyed, mountain man looking giant named Jeremiah. Jeremiah, along with his wife (a woman who claims to have religious visions), have sold off their possessions, converted the proceeds to the purchase of guns, bullets, seed and gold and relocated to the Montana wilderness, hoping for the 'final conflict'.. between citizens and government… that will ultimately lead to the End Times.

Although Pete is accustomed to struggling families and malnourished, neglected and even abused children… families comprised of adults perhaps down on their luck, living with the effects of poor educations and even poorer opportunities, and even bad decision making, he discovers that he is out of his depth when faced with the Pearl family. In trying to help the Pearl family (and against the wishes of Jeremiah Pearl), Pete comes face to face with an extremist ideology which brings him up against the federal government. Sadly, the ending to this clash is both explosive and heartbreaking.

Broadly, this story seemed to me to be about one particular man's idealism… an idealism that I both admired and found foolish at times and of course, one that I could relate to. In addition, if you have ever wondered about the working life of a social worker , I think reading this story about Pete Snow would be a great starting point.Pete's idealism motivated and moved him to reach out to struggling families to enable them to make positive changes in their lives. He was often unsuccessful but his endurance and perseverance could never be in question. One of the things I found most compelling about this story is that in spite of Pete's own personal struggles.. or maybe even BECAUSE of these struggles.. he never gave up on himself, his daughter or the families in need. I believe this story demonstrated just how a person's personal struggles can mold them into empathetic and insightful agents for change.

I highly recommend this book by Smith Henderson.. not only because of the compelling story he tells but also for the beautiful descriptive language he utilizes.. to describe the desolate but exquisite Montana wilderness and of course, the people.. broken and struggling but full of the human spirit.
Profile Image for Diane Yannick.
569 reviews764 followers
September 14, 2014
I spend considerable time choosing which books I'm going to read. This one really caught my attention--first novel by the author, 1980's in a hardscrabble part of Montana plus a tough social worker trying to give destitute kids a chance. Right up my alley. Pete was initially very appealing as a character who would go the extra mile for his clients. Although I empathized with him, I could easily see why he was so hopeless at love. Jeremiah Pearl, a paranoid survivalist, was interesting in a perverted, slimy kind of way. I was introduced to a bleak backwoods that was home to religious fanatics who could not save their own.Young Ben, Jeremiah's son and Pete's client, tugged at my heart strings as did another client Katie. I yearned to know more about the Cloningers who selflessly welcomed foster children into their lives.

I felt that the narration was tedious, uneven and disjointed. The notes about Rachel, which were enmeshed at random times in the story, were distracting, repetitive and annoying. There were too many tangents that were not at all compelling. Pete's behavior and work schedule were often unbelievable. His brother Luke managed to show up at just the most opportune times. Hard to swallow.

Whereas others found the prose glorious, I found it overworked and excessive. "Did he strike a kitchen match against his jeans and drop it on the ground and did the flame hasten into the trailer, the inside light up like Stacks himself had flipped the switch, and did fire dance in obscene chemic colors as the polyester curtains went up in green and cerise flashes like magicians' smoke?" This and dozens of other descriptions just felt awkward to me. "The kids emptied out toys from the closet for Katie to partake of." Who the hell ever heard of a child partaking of toys?

I am disappointed that I spent my time reading this 500 page book which ended with a fizzle. I initially had doubts that maybe I had missed something really important thus was unable to find as much meaning as others. Then I decided that this book was in desperate need of clarity and an aggressive editor.
Profile Image for Cathrine ☯️ .
634 reviews349 followers
October 18, 2015
A very good book about gritty and disturbing subject matter and people at the heart of it. Unflinchingly it opens the Pandora’s box of "What’s gotten into people?" and "What’s wrong with this country?”. Do you want to see what’s inside? Maybe. It’s not pleasant. The very small flame of hope at the bottom of the box appearing in the epilogue could easily be blown out by a puff. We all know the box cannot be closed after it’s opened, but we do have the choice to leave it alone.

“At bedtime, Mama tells him he’s done a grave thing. That he’s put their souls at hazard. That you let some poison into your eyes and it can spread to your heart and to those you love. That evil is contagious. That every single thing you do matters, and matters forever".

In the world of books I want to read and will never have time to get to, this is one that could have been purged from the shelf. But only because I’ve had my fill of such sad and depressing fare. Humanity plumbing the depths of evil, despair, and addiction. Some looking to embrace it all and too few others attempting to make a difference. As I said, it was well done, but reading it left my heart and soul battered. There is sometimes a way out of darkness and we are left knowing that it will take great courage and fortitude to begin the journey and keep the light from going out. The warnings that appear just prior to some television programs come to mind. "This show contains scenes that some viewers may find disturbing" and "Viewer discretion advised." Some readers may want to consider carefully before opening these pages.

Profile Image for Karen.
643 reviews99 followers
February 7, 2014
I straight-up loved this book.

Pete Snow is a social worker in rural Montana in the early 1980s, struggling to do right by his messed-up clients--especially the kids. His work is all kinds of rough, as you might expect in a region with low incomes and minimal infrastructure. And Pete's own life is no cake walk--he took the job in remote Tenmile in part to escape his failed marriage and fractious family. He's not perfect, but he's trying hard.

Things kick into gear when he encounters Benjamin Pearl, a semi-feral eleven year-old kid who turns up in a public school out of nowhere. Pearl lives in the Montana wilderness with his father Jeremiah, an Old Testament conspiracy theorist and general end-of-the-worlder. Pete gets gradually caught up in their lives as he tries to help them out and starts to come across signs that Jeremiah may be more dangerous and complicated than he seems.

This is a fairly long book, over 400 pages, but I raced through it. I read it the way I eat M&Ms, but without the stress on my pancreas.* Henderson's style reminds me of Annie Proulx, in particular The Shipping News--he can be terse and he sometimes dispenses with his articles and pronouns, but he's more Cormac McCarthy than Hemingway. Describing the frigid, unforgiving Yaak Valley wilderness and the hardscrabble people who live around it, his sentences are like volleys of punches--direct, vivid, and resounding. It's also clear that he knows this world--its dive bars and logging roads, meth heads and ranchers and hard-worn waitresses--extremely (possibly regrettably) well.

There's a strong plot here to go along with the great writing. Events concatenate without quarter, either for Pete or the reader. In another book this might start to feel like One Damn Thing After Another, but Henderson's writing is so solid and his handling of consequences so good that the fictional dream almost never fractures. Only at the very climax did I question any of his plot points, and by that time it didn't matter, I was sold.

This is a smart book with heart, a character-based literary novel with a solid plot, and a glimpse into a world that's probably foreign to most readers but still populated by people whose triumphs and failings feel important and real. I loved it without reservation. I can't recommend it enough, and I hope Henderson publishes more soon so that I can read whatever's next.

* Now there's a blurb.
Profile Image for Sarah.
431 reviews108 followers
December 4, 2014
How is this book getting so many rave reviews? It baffles me. I feel like I'm taking crazy pills because the Fourth of July Creek that I read was simply not good. (Spoilers ahead, by the way.)

The frustrating thing is that there is a good story here. Unfortunately, though, it got drowned in a bunch of nonsense. First of all, the only plot that I found compelling was the one that revolved around Jeremiah Pearl, his son, and their preparations for the End. The stuff with Rachel and Cecil felt like little more than a distraction. And then there were just so many extraneous details....the book started out fairly well and then farted around for about eighty pages. The story itself didn't really get going until about 200 pages in. So that was frustrating. I have a compulsion about finishing books I start, otherwise I would have just quit around the 150-page mark.

Everyone is praising Henderson's writing. Maybe I'm just an unsophisticated literary plebe, but I found his style incredibly obnoxious and his prose was so purple it about gave me a headache. Henderson clearly has talent, but he just went way over the top to the point that it felt embarrassingly self-indulgent. Here are a few little gems: "he swooned like a drunken woodland god," "shapes of steam from the hot pools sifted lazily through the wet pines like robed ghosts of a sudatorium," "they would begin to harvest orgasms," "unseen cracks in the load-bearing trestles of his mind," "they birthed themselves again and again through the wet and heated throng," "under a transom of falling stars, the sky streaked in a kind of agony, white grooves, his eyes can't brake their casters," "snow falls in white floc like the ashy precipitate of a yonder fire," and finally this goofy little fragment: "the heart's living tropism." The book is chock-full of this kind of nonsense. And he seemed like he was trying so very hard to sound fancy and cowboy-poetic. His descriptions were like "winced hugely," "chewed enormously," "he volunteers that he needs to pee," "invited a fusillade of french fries," "the cold evicted his breath," "his words sluiced out," "a restless logorrhea," "chemic colors," "diskiltered jaw." The language became distracting--instead of reading for the plot, I found myself instead propelled by curiosity about what overwrought turn-of-phrase he'd pull out of his ass next. Between that and the excessive "artistic" sentence fragments and run-ons, I was rolling my eyes so hard I got a little dizzy. Or, as Henderson would perhaps have phrased it, my ocular revolutions were so vigorous that I was struck with a peculiar fleeting sense of disequilibrium. I wonder if maybe Henderson has read one too many Cormac McCarthy novels.

Am I being too mean in this review? I am, aren't I? But, I'm sorry, some of it was simply laughable. Like the big denouement moment: "Pearl is Snow is himself is everyone." Wow! Jeez! What an epiphany! Do you get it?! Because it's like the human condition so we are all them and they are all us?! So deep, man. So deep.

And actually, you know what? I don't feel bad about being hypercritical. Because this book has all the hallmarks of a pretentious over-hyped under-edited male author trying to be poignant and genius and dark: there's a missing girl, molestation, pointless scenes of drug-induced hazes, and random bitter sex scenes between people who don't like each other. And I gotta say, I'm really fucking sick of (usually male) authors using molested/raped/vulnerable/sexualized young girls to make their story gritty and "real." It's overdone, it's unoriginal, it's lazy. So that really pissed me off too.

I think with some serious editing Fourth of July Creek could have been a great book. As it is, though, I found it terribly disappointing and obnoxiously overwritten. It tried so hard and accomplished so little. It reads like something that Guy in Your MFA would have written. I don't understand all the literary wanking over it, and I got nothing out of it. But maybe that's just me.
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