Prepare to be left feeling stunned and almost speechless. It will be a long time before I get this book out of my mind. What a story! Fourth of July Creek, the debut novel by Smith Henderson, was recommended to me by a high school classmate of mine who predicted that I would love it, and he was right. I was hooked on the first few pages. This book takes the reader on a roller coaster ride of sympathy, frustration, anger, disgust, laughter, and tears. It reminds the reader how the lives, self-esteem, beliefs, and health of innocent children can be shaped either positively or negatively by parents. Also illustrated is how “the system” can sometimes let down not only the children it was created to protect, but also the social workers.
Henderson’s debut novel, Fourth of July Creek has received numerous honors, including winner of the 2015 John Creasy (New Blood) Dagger Award and the 2014 Montana Book Award. It was a 2014 New York Times Notable Book. The novel also made the longlists for the 2016 International DUBLIN Literary Award, the Folio Prize, and the VCU Cabel First Novelist Award. There are others, but the list was too long to include here.
The main character, Pete Snow, is a social worker in the Department of Children’s Protective Services, a fictional character who represents just one of thousands of overworked, underpaid protectors of children in this country. Pete’s experiences expose the troublesome and often dangerous work of today’s social workers.
The story opens when Pete is called to a ramshackle home where 15-year-old Cecil has threatened to shoot his mother. It’s only later that the reader learns Mom has been sexually abusing him for years.
Then there is 11-year-old Benjamin, whose self-educated, but seriously irrational and paranoid, survivalist father, Jeremiah Pearl, is convinced the government is out get him, and keeps his son living deep in the Montana mountains. Benjamin suffers from malnutrition, as well as from giardia due to drinking from mountain streams.
Pete himself is an alcoholic separated from an alcohol- and drug-addicted wife, who has exposed their daughter (Rachael) to drugs, and abuse from Mom’s sleepover boyfriends. While Pete’s life and family spiral out of control, and he searches for his runaway daughter, he is caught up in manhunt when Jeremiah Pearl attracts the FBI.
Interspersed throughout the story were questions to 14-year-old Rachael, and her answers. I kept thinking it would eventually be revealed that Rachael was talking with a school counselor or a psychologist, but her story was left hanging.
What Made this Book Reviewer Grumpy?
- There were frequent instances of changing verb tenses within a sentence, and within a paragraph, for example: “…he went over…. He pounds on the door.” He should have “pounded” on the door.
- There were too many questions that ended with periods instead of question marks. This happened enough that I found it distracting.
- A lack of research: This is a common problem in novels. At some point, Henderson mentions “the leafless live oaks”. Live oaks drop their leaves year-round, but are never leafless — they are evergreen; and live oaks do not grow in Montana.
- I read the book on my Nook e-reader, as I do most books. I realize this next complaint could be due to poor editing of the electronic version. On the other hand, it could be written the same way in the hard copy of the book: Several times there was no larger than normal break between paragraphs to indicate a change of scene. A couple of times, I found it confusing, and had to go back and re-read the previous scene to see how it connected with the next one. It didn’t. Pete had moved on to another time and place.
Fourth of July Creek is a Must Read
There are a few books I have read more than once. This will definitely be one of them. It is a must read. You will be affected one way or another.