Fourth of July Creek
Author: Smith Henderson
Publisher: HarperCollins, 2014
Genre: Fiction
Paperback Edition: 467 pages
Source: Personal copy

This debut novel has received much critical acclaim. “Not-to-be-missed”, “best book I’ve read this year,” “impressive”. Superlatives and praise from every corner have continued since the hardcover publication. It seemed to this reader that I was drowning in the calls to read this book. When I saw it out in paperback at McLean and Eakin, I decided I’d better dive in. I found the water very cold.

Yes, there are important themes: freedom, morality, poverty, the care of orphaned children, children of dysfunction. We see rural America in a somewhat painful light. The writing is face-paced, energetic, beautiful. Often I read books about the west because I want to travel to places like Montana that hold a certain mysterious geological beauty. The Bitterroots, Missoula, Route #2 are all of that. The writing here is enthralling, but I would not call it satisfying in the conventional sense.

In a recent interview, Gloria Steinem uttered a sentence that stopped me in my reading tracks. She was discussing the last piece of writing she had read that made her furious, an article about American soldiers in Afghanistan. This is the line that grabbed my attention: “By allowing massive child abuse, we are creating the next generation of vengeance.”

Reading that sentence, the social worker Pete, lead character in this story, grows in heroic stature for this reader, in spite of the fact that much of his behavior seems anything but. And yet one thing this book is very much about is how none of us can know the grief and loss that others face, nor can we fully understand the ways anyone might deal with such. Pete is heroic because he tries so valiantly to stop child abuse, because he deals with the fact of how pervasive it is in our society even in the beauty of western forests, mountains, creeks, and human quiet.

The rock-hard beauty of the prose kept me going through this book. This commentary is more personal than I would like. But it is a personal read.

As a life-long educator, I thought I knew something about the inhuman ways we treat children right here in America. No need to go to Afghanistan, Syria or anywhere else in the world. But the children and the events of this story astonished me. One wonders how things can go so wrong in a world of people striving for right. The writer Elizabeth Strout advised writers to take your story to the wall. Smith Henderson did just that.

Take a deep breath and dive into this book. The water might not be as cold for you as it felt to me. Bottom line: I’m glad I didn’t miss this read.