The Montana Visitors Bureau will not be hiring Smith Henderson any time soon. The Montana of Henederson’s gripping debut novel is bleak and desolate, filled with alcoholics, addicts, guns, separatists and loneliness. Even his brilliant depictions of the state’s wilderness seem hard-edged and dangerous. Henderson’s characters are beyond broken; they are fractured into tiny pieces and spinning out of control.
This is not a pretty novel.
“The children were like children from anywhere, maybe a little less so.”
Pete Snow, a Department of Children’s Services social worker, should be our hero, but he’s an alcoholic who abandoned his own child and shelters more than one criminal. The fact that I still have sympathy for this man is a testament to the strength and power of Henderson’s writing.
His adversary, Benjamin Pearl, is a wild near-animal zealot, raising his son and hiding from society. (Conspiracy theorists will love his philosophy and anti-system rants.) Again, he is the antithesis of everything I believe in and yet, my heart broke for him and I was unable to compartmentalize him in the role of “bad guy.”
Is it any accident that these men have the names Snow and Pearl which evoke images of innocence and purity? I’ve got to hand it to Henderson. Down to the characters’ names, he doesn’t leave any detail of this novel to chance.
Snow and Pearl almost dance around each other through the events of this novel, alternating between trust and betrayal. Their relationship illustrates all the themes and questions of freedom, relationships, loyalty and democracy.
Meanwhile, Snow’s daughter is missing. In some of the most emotionally powerful chapters of the novel, we hear directly from Rose.
“What was it like on the way to Texas? It was Wyoming, which means to drive forever through ugly subscrape the color of dirty pennies. It was just wyoming along.”
The way in which Rose continues to use “wyoming” as a verb, noun and adjective to describe the nothingness she feels is absolutely brilliant.
All of these journeys are incredibly sad. I never shy away from dark reading material. In fact, I couldn’t help but compare this book to The Painter, Once Upon a River and Girlchild. All of these are fiction about the darker underside of America. The difference is that Fourth of July Creek, I found no hope. I could not put this book down, but I didn’t want to read it.
“the world is a blade and dread is hope cut open and spread inside out.”
The Painter by Peter Heller
Once Upon a River by Bonnie Jo Campbell
Girlchild by Tupelo Hassman