63 of 70 people found the following review helpful
Henderson's novel is an incredibly powerful tale. Set in rural western Montana, it all begins when a young boy is found wandering through their very small town and local social worker, Pete Snow, is called in to help. Trying to return the lost (or just wandering) boy to his parents who live outside of town in what can only be described as an isolated compound, Pete has his first run-in with the boy's father, Jeremiah, an extremely violent, anti-government fanatical religious fundamentalist.
Pete, though he has his own demons, decides to see if he can make any progress with Jeremiah in the hopes of offering the help/assistance his family so desperately requires ---- poverty and desperation is no good upbringing for a child. He begins the long and patient process of trying to earn Jeremiah's trust. And he might be successful --- until the FBI becomes involved and all hell breaks loose.
I was blown away by intensity of this novel. There are so many themes at play here, but through it all is one darned fine story. The characters are larger than life....full of faults, yes, but aren't we all? Of course we all have thoughts of Ruby Ridge and the Koresh disaster when this topic comes up, but Henderson is very sensitive to the subtleties at play here. Rarely in life is any situation black and white, and Pete's dilemma, Jeremiah's mental illness...these are subjects that deserve an introspective look. Henderson accomplishes this admirably and never lets the pace of the plot flag for a moment. I was turning pages late, late into the night with this novel. Highly recommended.
24 of 27 people found the following review helpful
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).
38 of 46 people found the following review helpful
Fourth of July Creek is Henderson's first novel but it reads like he's been writing and publishing fiction for years, so good is it. In summary, it sounds like a horror show. Pete, a falling-apart on-again-off-again-drunk Montana social worker encounters an eleven-year-old wild child and his survivalist father and forges a bond of sorts with them. Pete would like it to become friendship but the father, Jeremiah Pearl, is paranoid, maybe insane: trust beyond the most tentative is impossible between them. No matter how Pete tries to help the Pearls -with food, vitamins and medicines, clothes--Jeremiah sees him as the agent of the occupation, ZOG --for those who don't know, ZOG stands for Zionist Occupational Government, which some survivalists see as the visible manifestation of the Jews' takeover of America. Jeremiah is always waiting for the black helicopters to swoop down on him. Everything he sees or hears is a sign: of the arrival of the antichrist, the impending Apocalypse, the hidden controls a Satanic government and a damned people impose on the few remaining pure. What happens between them is scary.
Pete's life away from the Pearls is heartbreaking. His ex-wife is a good time girl who lives on a diet of drugs, alcohol and short-term sex. Her daughter Rachel runs away, partly to escape her mother's "boyfriends," partly just to get free of her mother. Pete searches for her, to no avail. Alternating chapters narrate Pete's story and Rachel's. (She calls herself "Rose" now.) Rachel's is told in the form of an interrogation: a neutral third party voice questions her and she answers. She's had no positive role models in her life except her loving but absent, inarticulate and alcoholic father Pete. She has no money. She has to depend on strangers she meets for food and shelter. She's underage and attractive. So you can figure what happens to her when she "wyoms" (heads out for the open spaces, Wyoming) as she calls it. It's sad.
So ... a sad, sometimes scary story on both sides, about broken or nearly broken people living emotionally impoverished lives in an uncaring world. Why, then, is my reaction to this brilliant novel (yes, the word "brilliant" does apply here) that what happens here, awful or not, is ultimately life affirming? Certainly, the quality of the writing helps. This is a very well written work. But at heart, it's because Henderson makes you care about his fictional characters and leaves you hoping their future lives may be better. Will they be? Probably not, but hope is an engine that keeps us all going, and Henderson has found ways to tap into it, even in this most dreadful of tales. This is a very good book by a talented young author, and it deserves a wide audience. It rewards reading.
A side bar: I had just finished reading Ivan Doig's The Whistling Season (2006) before I started this book. It is set in Montana too, but in 1909, seventy years before the events of Fourth of July Creek. The world Doig describes is severe -the margin between failure and survival is narrow. But Henderson describes a much harsher place. It is as though all the promise in Doig's frontier society of seventy years before has drained away and what replaces it is despair and dimly possible hope. Is that what's happened there? I hope not.
15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on May 3, 2014
I liked this book, but I don't think the publisher's description does it any favors, to the point where I almost gave it three stars instead of four. The novel is a quick and entertaining read, given its length, but the description makes it seem much deeper and more of a thriller than it is.
The description mentions one aspect of the novel, which is set in Montana at the beginning of the 1980s, but most of the novel doesn't involve Benjamin Pearl or the FBI. It's mainly about the social worker who could use a lot of help himself, his social life and family life, and his attempts to find his daughter. Although he cares about the children he encounters in his work, and they seem to form attachments to him, he's been a failure with his own daughter and his devotion to his job is sporadic at best.
I wouldn't be surprised to see this get some of those middle class "I didn't like or admire any of the characters" type reviews. The novel is filled with characters outside the mainstream, some doing the best they can coping with their past and present, others just living the lowlife.
One of the novel's epigraphs is a Thoreau quote, "If I knew for a certainty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life." Near the end of the novel, the social worker character makes a similar remark himself, but he manages to do some good despite his many weaknesses.
13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on May 31, 2014
This damn Henderson guy cost me a sunny spring Saturday.
A great story, complex and plausible, from the invisible lowest bottom of America's barrel, where children bear the brunt of every failure.
A really individual voice: terse and then insistently lyrical at times. In the way that David James Duncan drips of Oregon and Washington, Henderson breathes out a lifetime of Montana's Hi-Line. 'Hard to say if outsiders will feel its authenticity, but Henderson well and truly sees that part of America's Empty Quarter.
A set of what will be called "gritty" characters. But, these aren't resurrected archetypes from academic fiction's incestuous stock of hard luck icons. Henderson's characters bruise and break and limp through towns where there isn't enough charity to hold back poverty's consequences.
Henderson has appropriated elements of the Ruby Ridge debacle, weaving the most human of antagonists from Randy Weaver's situation, an anti-hero made heroic by the unstoppable stupidity of federal machismo.
I started this book late Friday. Woke up and read the rest in one sitting Saturday morning into mid-afternoon.
There are a lot of writers who plot well and some whose characters feel utterly real.
What sets Henderson apart is his ability to create a world whose edges you don't feel as you're reading. It's like you fell out of a raft in Lochsa Falls and washed through a chaos of standings waves until Rachel's final unfinished sentence jerked you from an eddy and back onto dry land.
17 of 21 people found the following review helpful
I usually avoid 'debut novels'. Life is short. I like to read but too many times I have been hooked by the hype and then resented the time I spent reading something I just found too flawed by novice mistakes in writing. 'Fourth of July Creek' was outside that pattern. I enjoyed my time spent in this foreign and exotic culture of the Montana underclass.
Rationally I know this same underclass exists out here on the Delmarva Peninsula. But it does not touch me, a white male, aging out of the old American mainstream. Other reviewers remark that the people in this book are not very likable. They did not seem that way to me. Pete was introduced as a social worker. A nice wasp-liberal do-gooder, protecting the noble impoverished from police oppression. I was surprised he was not driving an old Volvo. I was quickly disabused. Pete is not a nice guy. but he still tries to make life better for individuals who reject the kind of life I would find much better than what they want. His estranged wife is believable and I liked her. She is trying to survive when what she really wants is Pete as her husband again but that cannot be because of Pete's own self definition as a man. Pete's daughter (my name is Rose) I liked. I could see so many things in Rose that I also see in my own teen-age granddaughter whose life is not anything like anyone in this book, but is not heading for a life of endless joy either.
The main message I took from this book is that 'the system', the American way of life, that I so proudly esteem, is failing in too many ways. One character in the book was abused in nearly all the terrible ways possible for a child who is a ward of the state. Eventually they 'age-out' and stay in the system as an adult employee. Yet her fellow employees, the social workers who are trained to understand and aid people like her, only see her as weird.
Mean drunks and crazy paranoids and selfish self-centered people can also be likeable.
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
There have been a lot of reviews talking about plot and the overall writing quality, so I'm going to talk about one concern I had going into this book: is it too dark? That was the most common criticism I saw of the book, and I don't necessarily like grim reads (life is grim enough), so I was hesitant. But here's where I came out: nope, not too grim.
Yes. There is a darkness to the book. How can there not be? It takes place in a desolate, dying town in Montana during the end of the Carter years. It involves groups of people who are ostracized from mainstream, affluent America: the poor, the disenfranchised, and the desperate. In many ways, I thought that was what the book was about: what happens to good people, and not good people, in desperate circumstances.
Yet, I didn't find the book hopeless. Good people, like Pete the social worker, try to make a positive impact. There is love and friendship, even if it doesn't turn out well. Even the "worst" people have three dimensions to them.
Ultimately, I really admired this book. It wasn't easy to read. I think of it as being like a really fine Scotch. It has a strong taste. You have to sip it, not swallow. Every sentence was precise and crafted with a lot of care, but unlike a lot of "MFA Fiction," Fourth of July Creek also has a really strong narrative and storyline. If you like light, easy reads only, then I wouldn't recommend this book. If you want happy endings without compromise, I wouldn't recommend this book. But if you want a gorgeously written novel that brings to life an often overlooked world and people, if you want truly fine writing wrapped around a compelling story, then here you go. I will definitely be tracking Smith Henderson's work into the future.
16 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on June 26, 2014
Mr. Henderson is a great writer, and this story is very good. I like a more pronounced ending to a book, and this one is left up in the air. I'm pretty sure I may have missed something important earlier in the book, but I was confused at the ending. I finished this book last week and there are parts of it that are still on my mind, so three stars may be one star short of what it deserves, but the ending was just not what I was expecting from such a great start. Like I said that could be user error. It's very depressing... the characters are sad and conflicted. One boy's story is so sad it made me cry, so don't look for uplifting, but it's undeniably well written.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
After reading this book I was left with questions and the main one was, what was the point?
I know I am the odd man out here but I just did not enjoy this book with the very sad, derelict and depressing characters.
I just could not connect or want to connect to these characters. Pete, a social worker in a small rural town, has lots of compassion but it's not enough.
Even the "hero", Pete, was so flawed that I didn't find him endearing but misplaced. I wish he at least he had more insight and fortitude
to act more assertively. Since he is a social worker, I dont' know, I just thought some of the situations he came into contact with he could have done more or gotten someone else involved to remedy that situation. It was like he put a bandaid on everything and that was never good enough. Then again annything he did was mostly helpful becasue these people were utterly disfunctional.
Most of the writing was absorbing but some parts, important parts were incohesive. The ending was just blah and really a let down I thought there would be more closure.
8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on June 6, 2014
Just before writing this review, I noticed that the first blurb for this great first novel is from Phillip Meyer, which is interesting because Fourth of July Creek seems to be straight out of the Meyer-genre. This is my favorite area of contemporary fiction - the area that focuses on Rural America. Few novels (at least that I read) are set in the backcountry of the West, or the sad suburbs of Middle America or New England, and even fewer are really good. Phillip Meyer, Kent Haruf, and now Smith Henderson really cover this genre in compelling fashion.
I found this book to be bleak and inspiring. The main characters were deeply flawed but likeable at their core, and the portrayal of (relatively contemporary) poverty was devastating. If you like dark books with complex characters and unsettling scenarios of moral dilemmas, then you should check this one out. Definitely an author to watch.