Smith Henderson

Fourth of July Creek

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Fourth of July Creek Summary

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Fourth of July Creek is a 2011 novel by American author Smith Henderson. Set in rural Montana, the novel follows social worker Pete Snow as he works to gain the trust of survivalist Jeremiah Pearl. Meanwhile, Snow’s own family is falling apart. Fourth of July Creek is Henderson’s first novel: the writer has previously been recognized for his short fiction, winning the 2011 PEN Emerging Writer’s Award and a Pushcart Prize. His debut was hailed by the New York Times as “an impressive book—deeply so.”

Pete Snow is the sole representative of the Department of Family Services monitoring the abuse of children by their families in the wild area around the town of Tenmile, Montana (named for its distance from the nearest mining camp). The era is the early 1980s, and the Tenmile region is economically depressed. Pete encounters many traumatic cases, but even he is shocked by the appearance of Benjamin Pearl in the school playground: the boy is starving, covered head-to-toe in bruises, deficient in several vitamins.

Pete investigates the boy’s home life. The Pearls live deep in the wilderness, and although they seem to be a large clan, Pete is only permitted to meet Benjamin’s father, Jeremiah, who warns Pete straight away that he will kill him rather than give up his son to the government.

Pete begins trying to win Jeremiah’s trust. He learns that the Pearls have been living in the backwoods ever since Jeremiah’s wife, Sarah, had a vision of an apocalyptic event ending civilization. Jeremiah believes the government is the great enemy. As part of a covert “war” against the government, he busies himself defacing coins and putting them back into circulation. He doesn’t use money himself: he has converted all his wealth into “bullet, gun or seed.”

Meanwhile, Pete’s own personal life is deteriorating. He is estranged from his father. His brother, Luke, is on the run, and Luke’s parole officer, Wes, is trying to intimidate Pete into betraying his brother. Eventually, Wes sets fire to Pete’s house. Pete is also estranged from his wife—he was caught cheating—and from his teenage daughter, Rachel.

Rachel has always secretly believed that Pete cares more about his “cases” than he does about his own daughter. The truth is that Pete feels called to help his “cases,” and he knows how to, while he struggles with the emotional work of being a father to his own child. Recently, Rachel has begun acting out: drinking too much, staying out all night, and experimenting with sex. Now, she runs away from home. Pete, shocked, devotes himself to the task of tracking her down—but with equal devotion, she evades him. Falling in with a pimp called Pomeroy, she finds herself coerced into sex work.

The Pearls have begun to trust Pete, but one day Wes follows Pete to the Pearls’ camp, believing that Pete is visiting his brother. Assuming that Pete has led the authorities to their camp, the Pearls threaten Pete and Wes. Ben shoots Wes, killing him. The Pearls release Pete, but he is forced to report Wes’s murder to the police. He learns that the FBI has been searching for Jeremiah for a while.

The police raid Jeremiah’s camp, where they find the bodies of Jeremiah’s wife and his other children. There is no sign of Jeremiah or Benjamin. The raid on their camp provokes other local survivalists, and there are riots in the town. Local authority-figures are threatened and a post office is blown up.

Pete hears that Rachel has been seen in Seattle and rushes to find her. As he tries to win the cooperation of the local authorities, he realizes that Seattle social workers and police officers are complicit in Pomeroy’s prostitution ring.

Rachel tries to walk out, but Pomeroy threatens her. She conspires with other pimps to have Pomeroy killed. During the running battle between their enforcers, Pete and Rachel see one another, but she runs away, unable to face her father. He lets her go.

When Pete arrives back in Tenmile, Benjamin has been found. Pete presses him for the truth about his family, and Benjamin reveals that Sarah and the other children fell ill. Jeremiah wanted to fetch medical help, but Sarah killed herself and her children rather than allow it. Jeremiah and Benjamin have been alone for a long time. Pete persuades the care service to release Benjamin to foster care, and he helps Jeremiah escape with his son.

Fourth of July Creek explores the interaction of political divisions with family strife and the fraught relationship between personal freedom and the government’s duty of care for all citizens. The novel is also a hymn to the beauty of the wilderness and the compassion that holds communities together. Fourth of July Creek heralds Henderson’s arrival as an important new voice in American fiction.