Monday, August 4, 2014
Review: 'Fourth of July Creek'
By Smith Henderson
The American West has long been a haven for people who want to be left alone and those who despair of society. But loners and misfits aren't always alone. Sometimes they have families and those families have children -- children who may be loved or who may be barely endured, but either way, they can be children who are not cared for.
Pete Stone is a social worker assigned to a vast territory in the northwest corner of Montana, of sparsely settled pockets not of civilization, but of people. He's like a lot of those people. His marriage is broken, his teenage daughter is sullen and doesn't get much attention from a father with a demanding job, and he drinks. A lot. His successes trying to help children and listen to the adults purportedly caring for them are few but he still plugs away at it.
Between other hard-luck cases, Pete is called when a wild child appears at a school one day. Even in the pre-computerized days of the late '70s and early '80s, the dawn of the Reagan era, it's unusual for a boy in such a state to have no records. The boy, Benjamin, doesn't consider himself neglected. He and his pa live in the woods off the land. Headed up toward camp, Benjamin's father warns Pete away, obviously willing to shoot him.
That father is Jeremiah Pearl, who knows the end times are coming. His dearly loved wife saw the signs coming and had the whole troop of Pearls, including all the babies, leave Indiana and head for the woods where they might have a chance to survive.
Pete leaves foodstuffs and clothes in a niche in the woods. Sometimes things get taken. The distrustful Pearl gradually doesn't quite trust Pete, but accepts his help and then him. In between spells when they spend some time traipsing through the land, Pete's wife leaves Montana for Texas, where there is a chance of a man taking care of her and their daughter, and their daughter realizes she's got nowhere to go. So she leaves. And it's about as blandly dire as one would think.
The sections where Pete tries to navigate the system through several states, trying to find a young runaway daughter, shows how easily children fall through the cracks of a social system set up to protect them, and shows the heartbreak of parents who love their children but don't know how to take care of them. So do the sections where that daughter, Rachel, becomes a child of the streets.
Whether it's parents who can't handle being parents, children forced to grow up and fend for themselves, people who believe what they are told or people who don't believe the evidence in front of their faces, Henderson's debut novel is filled with innocents who wonder about what has happened to them or who cannot handle what they see going on. Most of the people in the novel feel helpless about what they see, whether it's a small-town judge heartbroken when Reagan wins, a female social worker who was an abused child or a federal agent who regrets the choices he has made.
About the only people who don't feel helpless are Pearl and his son. Pearl is a combination of just about every paranoid, black helicopter-fearing loner who have inhabited the crannies of Northwest empty places for decades. He's also far more than that, and the dull despair that sometimes enshrouds Henderson's people is a great contrast to this character who searched so hungrily for something to believe in, and chose wrongly.
Henderson's novel earns its humanizing, heartfelt climax and coda both because the scope of the characters' journeys are so well-drawn and because the little details are so right. This is a highly political and social novel that is tightly anchored to its characters and setting. To have carried this off with no preaching or screeching is a remarkable achievement, and an uplifting reading experience.
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