By Chet Yarbrough
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.
Fourth of July Creek infers that American’ Presidents make no difference when it comes to broken lives of abandoned and abused children. 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).
Henderson’s 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 are often as focused on preserving institutions as aiding the public. The institution survives whether or not it solves human problems.
The story begins with the case of a single mother, a teenage son named Cecil, 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 Cecil 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 Cecil’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 the relationship with her son and could not be any part of the boy’s life. Divorce, sexuality, substance abuse, and institutionalized apathy swallow Cecil’s life.
This sexually abused son is only a small part of Henderson’s story. The main story revolves around extremist movements in America. Extremism is bred by single parent or dysfunctional families, sexual exploitation, substance abuse, and ineffectual public service institutions. Henderson creates several families, including Snow’s own family, that are either battered by divorce, sexual predation, drug and/or alcohol abuse. All of these families need help that is either too expensive, not available through public service, or tied to the beliefs of an organized religion.
A deranged woman is married to a man who loves her deeply. The husband is unable to comprehend or deal with his wife’s growing psychosis. The husband unconsciously enables his wife. He isolates her and their family in the wilderness. The children are raised like animals in the forest. The children and wife become ill and the illness is aggravated by the husband’s enabling and the wife’s psychosis. A human cauldron of despair is bound to boil over.
A myth about the family is created by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, the FBI, and DEA; in part, because of an event precipitated by the psychotic wife. The ATF begins a covert operation to investigate the family (one thinks of the Ruby Ridge debacle). In the course of the investigation, the husband is betrayed by an undercover ATF agent. The father 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 to the son and eventually the husband. This journey to friendship and understanding reveals a part of Henderson’s theme about American extremism; its origins and perpetuation.
Henderson frames a story that captures American government’ and public services’ failure. The book can be listened to as a cautionary tale, a call to action, or just a well written and complicated 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.