Book Review: Fourth of July Creek

Fourth of July CreekFourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wow! Wow! Wow!
I’ve been in a reading slump lately, finishing several books that I just didn’t find satisfying, kind of like when I eat a bunch of little snacks that aren’t bad, but leave me still feeling hungry-ish. (I didn’t even post reviews for most of those books because I felt mean-spirited writing so many three-star reviews. ) Then along comes FOURTH OF JULY CREEK, a big, satisfying banquet of a novel. It grapples with all my favorite topics: parent-child relationships, class conflict, and religious/political fanaticism. And despite being written by a guy with all sorts of MFA, literary-chic credentials (we’re not going to hold that against him. Much), the plot still charges along. Dig this.

Our anti-hero is a Pete, a social worker in rural Montana who managed to put himself through college despite having knocked up and married his high-school girlfriend. Pete is better educated than the dysfunctional families he’s charged with helping, but he’s not much better off than them financially or emotionally. The novel has three plot threads involving Pete’s efforts to help Cecil and Katie, whose mother is a neglectful addict; Ben, whose father is a conspiracy theory-obsessed survivalist; and Rachel, Pete’s own runaway daughter. The stories of these families are very dark indeed. The adults in the novel are all wounded people searching for love and some kind of belief system to bring order to their worlds. When they can’t find what they need, it’s their children who suffer. Kids don’t choose their parents; they’re forced to play the hand they’re dealt. This is not a feel-good book, but the ending, while by no means happy, does offer a glimmer of redemption. The characters all all flawed but compelling.

The novel takes place in the early 1980s, mainly because the eruption of Mt. St. Helens and the attempted assassination of Reagan play a minor but important part in the plot. Other than that, the story feels like it could be taking place today. Highly recommended.

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