By Chet Yarbrough
Fourth of July Creek: A Novel
By Smith Henderson
Narrated by MacLeod Andrews, Jenna Lamia
SMITH HENDERSON (Author, Screenwriter)
On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 the least trustworthy, a random audience survey marks trust in government as 1.
Smith Henderson’s Fourth of July Creek is about broken lives and institutional failure. After two chapters, a listener wonders, “Is this America”? Henderson vivifies a part of America conditioned by high divorce rates, sexual exploitation, substance abuse, and institutional apathy.
In Henderson’s story Pete Snow is a divorced, alcoholic social worker. Snow works in child welfare services, covering a large area of Montana. Snow makes a point of saying he is not a cop whenever he is investigating a home with children that are suspected of being neglected.
Snow is a character that sees the worst side of human nature; i.e. like a cop, Snow is exposed to a world of human’ degradation that fills and empties his life.
Though Snow is careful to distance himself from police, he is mired in the same dark side of humanity.
Henderson’s point is human apathy grows in some social service jobs because government lacks oversight and public accountability. The public feels the job is getting done because there is an institution to serve the need. Henderson’s story implies the public is apathetic. The public becomes apathetic because government has a department to do the job. The public might trust but does not verify. (Even more likely, the public is consumed by their own needs and wants and ignores social services that do not directly affect them.)
Fourth of July Creek infers that Presidents make no difference when it comes to broken lives of abandoned and abused children. However, Trump has shown (often in a negative light) that Presidents do make a difference.
Over 400 immigrant children remain separated from their families because of Trump’s enforcement of a flawed immigration policy.
Henderson’s story shows that child welfare services, like many public service jobs, attract employees with good intention who succumb to apathy and routine. The job becomes a paycheck rather than a calling. It is not that an employee is necessarily bad or incompetent but public service goals are often not humanly achievable within strict use of institutional rules. Institutional rules are made by people who often only preserve institutions. The institution survives whether or not it solves human problems.
The story begins with the case of a single mother, a teenage son, and a pre-school daughter. The mother and son are brawling with each other. A cop is at the scene when Snow arrives. Snow is a case worker for the family. The mother is a drug addict. She cannot manage her son for reasons greater than her drug habit. The solution is to remove the son from the family to live with a relative but the relative does not want the boy.
Snow finds a foster family that takes the boy but the boy ultimately runs away after the foster family decides he is too ungovernable.
The boy is caught. He is placed in something like a reform school. He is institutionalized. The boy is abandoned.
In the boy’s mind, Snow betrayed him. Snow is remorseful but has no realistic alternative. He cannot find the boy’s mother. She has moved on. Even if she had not moved on, Snow finds that the boy’s mother had sexualized her relationship with the son and could not be any part of the boy’s life. Divorce, sexuality, substance abuse, and institutionalized apathy swallow this American boy’s life.
This sexually abused son is only a small part of Henderson’s story. The main story revolves around family dysfunction in America. Child abuse is bred by single parent families, sexual exploitation, substance abuse, and ineffectual public service institutions. Several families, including Snow’s own family, are battered by divorce, sexual depredation, drug and alcohol abuse, and unavailable or ineffectual public services.
A deranged woman is married to a man who loves her deeply. The husband is unable to comprehend or deal with her psychosis. The husband enables his wife by isolating her and their family in the wilderness. The children are raised like animals in the forest. A myth about the family is created by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the FBI, and DEA. The ATF begins a covert operation to investigate the family. In the course of the investigation, the husband is betrayed by an undercover ATF agent and becomes a conspiracy-of-government’ believer.
RUBY RIDGE (RANDY WEAVER, SURVIVOR)
Snow comes across one of the husband’s sons and begins a case file on the family. Snow becomes a friend of the son and eventually the husband. This journey to friendship and understanding reveals a part of Henderson’s theme about American extremism and how it germinates and grows.
Henderson frames a story that captures American government failure. The book can be listened to as a cautionary tale, a call to action, or just a well written tale of travail. It is no wonder that government trust is at such a low ebb. The events of January 6, 2021 are a reflection of loss of trust in American government.
At the very least, one comes away with the feeling of how lucky they are to have NOT lived the life of one of Henderson’s characters. MacLeod Andrews’ and Jenna Lamia’s narration add to the drama of Henderson’s expertly written fiction.