By Chet Yarbrough
Fourth of July Creek: A Novel
By Smith Henderson
Narrated by MacLeod Andrews, Jenna Lamia
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 institutionalized apathy.
Henderson’s hero, 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. Though Snow is careful to distance himself from police, he is mired in the same dark side of humanity. 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.
Henderson’s novel is set in the early 80s. Jimmy Carter looks like a failed President because of the Iran hostage crises; Reagan looks like a savior to some, and anti-Christ to others (because of Reagan’s recovery from Hinckley’s bullet shot to the President’s chest). However, Fourth of July Creek infers that Presidents make no difference when it comes to broken lives of abandoned and abused children. (One might argue with that observation in today’s political climate.) The issue is human apathy with social service jobs that lack oversight and offer the public an accountability pass. The public feels the job is getting done because there is an institution to serve the need.
Henderson’s story shows that child welfare services, like many public service jobs, attract employees with good intention that 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.
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. 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.