Book Review: Fourth Of July Creek by Smith Henderson

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character development: *** (3 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

This book did not make me happy, it was not a particularly fun reading experience, but it was wonderfully engrossing.  Smith Henderson sure knows how to tell a story.  The little details he included while writing made me feel entirely transported to the impoverished, and often grimy, setting for this big, heart-rending drama.  It’s a long book.  Maybe it could have been a hundred pages shorter.  But even though some pieces dragged on a bit, I got through this larger novel in only two days because I was so curious to see what was going on around Tenmile, Montana. 

In the small, dilapidated town: Would Pete, the social-worker main character, be able to pull together the crumbling pieces of his own life?  His brother’s on the run from justice, his romantic entanglements end in disaster, and he drinks past the point of confusion.  (I thought that some of the female characters Pete meets weren’t given enough depth in their characterization, but this could just be a reflection of his own misjudgements.)  And what will happen to the messed-up families Pete visits for his job?  He genuinely cares about these kids who need his help, but there’s not much to be done, in such hopeless environs, for people who have nearly given up hope themselves.  The scenes in Tenmile showed a bleak reality behind the quaint picture I used to imagine when thinking about the vintage Midwest.

In cities and streets across various state lines: Would Pete’s thirteen year old daughter make it on her own? Would she make ithome intact? She ran away from her alcoholic mother, and her dad wouldn’t have been much help either.  As Pete says to his ex-wife at one point: “I take kids away from people like us.”  Rachel starts calling herself Rose and tries to act as grown-up as possible, but she soon finds herself in all sorts of gritty peril.  Other runaways and alluring boys are quick to take advantage of her wayward state.  This plot line was told through a series of questions and answers, like in a social services interview.  Rachel’s voice was determined and more hopeful than most, but her future looks bleak.  Sadder, still, is the fact that Pete knows what sort of trouble she could get into.  He sees it every day in his work.  And yet he’s still powerless to bring her back. 

And then, the most interesting — most American — series of questions arose from the woods and caves and rivers around Tenmile.  What’s up with Benjamin Pearl, the feral little boy who brings Pete into the woods, where he and his father live? Jeremiah Pearl is mesmerizing and dangerous: a survivalist who believes the end times are rapidly approaching.  He and his son live in the woods, denying most outside help, guarding against strangers, and asserting that American money will soon be useless.  Benjamin likes Pete’s company, even though the Pearls never quite trust the social worker, and after a while Pete spends more time camping, walking, and talking with the family.  Jeremiah Pearl may be covered in dirt and firing bullets into conspiracy theories, but his freedom and conviction appeal to Pete’s curiosity.  But curiosity leads to darker questions: Where are Benjamin’s siblings and his mother?  Why do they think the end times are coming?  Is the little boy really safe with his father, who is religiously harsh and could endanger them in the elements?  Are the Pearls part of a bigger, more threatening conspiracy than Jeremiah’s rebellious distribution of defaced currency and warning shots in the woods? 

The final questions were the strongest and most compelling part of Henderson’s book.  The Pearls, and the stories about them, reveal a specific American culture which I’ve only ever encountered through exaggerated caricatures until now.  Even as I dismissed Pearl’s ravings as extremism, I could understand how some people get drawn into the fervor of paranoia.  Especially in an area which the government tends to neglect until they need to come in with guns a’ blazin’.  The mystery of Jeremiah’s past, the uncertainty of Rachel’s future, and the desperation growing in Pete’s present circumstances kept my interest in Fourth Of July Creek, but the setting and tone will stay with me even longer than the plot.  Montana in the 1980s.  Who would have ever thought I’d voluntarily read 500 pages about people there?  I guess I’m getting more curious, with age, about the strange lands within my own borders. 

The characters I met in and around Tenmile have broadened my horizons a little, and made me 100% certain that a life in social work is not my cup of tea.  Even with all of Pete’s bad decisions and terrible coping skills, his sympathy for struggling people kept me sympathetic to his own tribulations.  When I slammed the book shut, at the heart-breakingly ambiguous ending, I wanted some assurance that everyone would be ok.  I may not these character’s lifestyles and beliefs, but they all just want hope and I wish that there would be enough to go around.

I recommend this book for fans of the vivid rural atmosphere in that show True Detective, violence and sorrow and grit included.  People who are comfortable facing the tragic realities of disastrously unstable families.  Anyone with little interest in conspiracy theories, or curious about the extreme characters who really do see the wrath of god in our near future.  This book is definitely for adults only, as very bad things happen to young people and those bad things are described without flinching.  Maybe it’s not the sort of book you want to cram into your suitcase for a vacation, but once you get into the story you’ll be constantly thinking about Tenmile, Montana until the very last page.


2 thoughts on “Book Review: Fourth Of July Creek by Smith Henderson

  1. I’m so glad you reviewed this book. I bought a copy (last month?) simply because I’ve read many rave trade reviews. I agree, the subject matter isn’t what made me buy this, but some of the most powerful books I’ve ever read have been ones that make me uncomfortable. And that’s not always a bad thing!

  2. Pingback: American Bafflement: A Book, The News, Some Music | Bookshelf Pirate

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