Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson
Review by Molly
Smith Henderson has been on our radar for some time. He won the 2011 PEN Emerging Writers Award as well as several other prizes, and has published several pieces in national literary magazines. Henderson has just published his first novel, Fourth of July Creek, and this first installment will, I hope, usher in a long career of harshly beautiful prose and terrifying insights.
Henderson has created a wide-ranging tale of the early Reagan years, set mainly in Montana but stretching down to Austin and over to the West Coast. Fourth of July Creek is the story of Pete Snow, a social worker in rural Montana, and his daughter, Rose, a teenage runaway rushing towards oblivion as Pete frantically tries to find her. Fourth of July Creek is also the story of Pete and his community, in particular, his two most troublesome clients. One is a child of the wilderness, the son of a survivalist who is minting coins and preaching the apocalypse. The other is an angry teenager just beginning to understand the trauma he has experienced as he bounces around the tenuous safety net of America’s disintegrating welfare system. Their only commonality: Pete Snow is their social worker, and he cares.
Henderson brings the tragedy of the CPS worker to life in a way previously reserved for firefighters, policemen, and the military. Social worker Pete Snow is on the front lines of the Great Society’s last gasp, fighting for the children in his community to have their most basic needs met, and he faces more danger in this role than most public servants. Pete is overworked, underappreciated, and, it almost goes without saying, underpaid. He tries his hardest to help his clients, and especially, to protect them from authorities bent on incarceration and control. His moments of self-doubt pervade the novel, all the more so after his daughter’s disappearance, and his relationship with a co-worker who grew up in the foster system helps blur the lines between client and provider.
One of the most remarkable aspects of Fourth of July Creek is the tenderness and understanding that Henderson brings to seemingly irredeemable characters. Henderson carefully and sensitively depicts mental illness, while allowing the reader to understand how such illness becomes exacerbated by its context. A major subplot involves the failure of characters to understand apocalyptic visions as delusions, leading to a conclusion of Shakespearean level tragedy.
In Fourth of July Creek, Henderson’s prose is lyrical and unrelenting. Alcohol-fueled escapes and escapades contrast with startling moments of clarity as Rose struggles to find herself in the heady atmosphere of Haight-Ashbury and Pete struggles to find his daughter. Will the family reunite? That is up to her, and Henderson does a good job of providing Rose with agency and making clear that she, for better or worse, makes her own decisions. Henderson’s message is harsh, but deeply humanistic. Wait patiently, try to forgive, never stop caring, and see the world around you for what it is.
Copies of Fourth of July Creek are now available on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.