So I started this novel yesterday morning and was not really enamoured after the first couple of chapters – I’m not sure why, I found the initial set up to be kind of slow – but the writing was beautiful so I kept on and here we are today and I’m finished. I really could not put this down once it kicked in, and I was right in that story all the way, despite its often meandering quality and some distinctive structuring that meant I had to keep my head in the game..
It is an emotional, often violent read to be sure – and I don’t really mean violent as in blood and guts, but more mentally speaking, dealing as it does with the vagaries of social work and some of the experiences our main protagonist has will give you pause for thought. It is a complex story, multi stranded, looking at many issues, and definitely one to make you sit up and take notice. The story of the survivalist family and their attitudes is absolutely fascinating – and it is strange to realise that people like this really do exist. The character defining journey Pete Snow takes as he deals with this and his own family issues is absolutely one of the best I’ve seen in any novel lately, he is truly compelling.
Very hard to review without spoilers it has to be said, but this is a remarkable debut, and one of those books where now I’ve finished it I’m still not sure what I think of it. A slow burner that turns almost on a dime into a rollercoaster breakneck speed of a read, it is one of those novels that will suck you in inexorably with each passing chapter. Did I love it? Yes I think I probably did. Don’t ask me why though. Kudos to the author.
Happy Reading Folks!
The 1980s. In Tenmile, Montana, social worker Pete Snow struggles to cope. Particular concerns are teenager Cecil (mother addicted to drink, drugs and men), eleven year old Ben (reclusive father a fanatic, convinced Armageddon is nigh). What, though, of Peter's own family? Brother Luke is on the run after beating up his probation officer. Estranged unfaithful wife Beth has problems with their troubled daughter Rachel. Grimly he realizes, "I take kids away from people like us."
Strong in atmosphere and characterization, the novel presents an uncompromising picture of a very bleak world. Necessarily it focuses on people very dysfunctional, including Pete himself.
Hopes were high after all the praise lavished. The first few chapters certainly arrested attention, surely promise of a most involving read.
Not so with me, I very much regret. Totally unexpectedly, the book gradually became an endurance test. There was nobody to like, no humour to lighten. Even Pete alienated, his heart in the right place but circumstances causing him to come adrift.
Sequences in Tenmile and its surrounds provided the main interest. This greatly flagged whenever Pete ventured further afield, which he increasingly did. The ongoing saga of Rachel's exploits furthermore caused attention to stray - this assuredly not the aim.
The writing is undeniably powerful, but the unrelieved gloom proved too hard to take. This seems a novel better appreciated by readers possessing more compassion and stronger stomachs.
Fourth of July Creek is an ambitious work. Smith Henderson creates a whole community in the forests of western Montana, mostly seen through the eyes of Pete Snow, the sole representative of the Department of Family Services. Pete sees troubled people; though he could do worse than start looking at his own family: a jailbait brother, an estranged wife and a daughter who seems to be off to hell in a handcart. The central plank of the story is a survivalist family - the Pearls - and specifically their son Benjamin. From the moment Ben walks into the school playground, Pete's future ends up inextricably linked to that of Jeremiah Pearl, Ben the son, and Pearl's absent wife and other children. Yet at the same time, often in bizarre question and answer form, we have Pete's own quest to discover who his daughter really is.
There is much fantastic description and a voice that is clearly intended to be Montana backwoods. The level of detail is amazing, and as in all good novels, there is enough ambiguity and space between the lines for the reader to personalise the novel.
However, the pacing is way wrong. For the first quarter of the novel (at least) it is not obvious what the thing is actually about. Even once the central themes have been drawn, it is way too easy to become disengaged. Perhaps it is the detail that mesmerises the reader, but huge swathes of plot go unnoticed and the reader ends up having to flick back through pages. In particular, there is a tendency to lose track of location and, perhaps, imagine that a scene is in the forest and then be surprised by the presence of a barmaid or the availability of a basin. It is too easy to find other things to do rather than finish the novel and the ending, when it eventually gets there, is not terribly compelling - indeed, one might say it is somewhat far-fetched. All the way through, people err on the side of violence in a way that never quite feels authentic.
Overall, it's a mixed bag. There is promise, sure. There is a really excellent sense of creating a location and an atmosphere. But the failings stand in the way of turning a competent piece of creative writing into a truly great novel.
on 26 May 2015
This novel is set in Montana and the year is 1980 when Ronald Reagan sweeps into power as President of the USA.The opening chapter gives the reader the flavour of the entire story as social worker Pete Snow has been called by the police to a domestic disturbance involving a junkie mother and her teenage son who has been in trouble with the law on several occasions. Pete is a dedicated social worker and manages to place the teenager with a stable foster family. Yet it the youngster's younger sister that Pete is particularly concerned with and worried about and perhaps he is thinking of his own young daughter who now lives with her mother following the breakdown of Pete's marriage; a daughter to whom he has been a largely absent father since the break up. While things do not turn out too well with this case there is an even greater challenge awaiting Pete when a young boy, Benjamin Pearl, turns up at a local school dirty and dishevelled. When Snow meets Benjamin's reclusive and apparently violent father he finds it well nigh impossible to help either father or son and in fact, the father, Jeremiah, does not want to accept any help from Pete or the social services.
Pete's own family is disfunctional and when his daughter goes missing Pete, in trying rather desperately to track her down attracts the interest of the F.B.I. There are few, if any, uncomplicated families in Fourth of July Creek and it is easy to see how Pete as a social worker might be snowed under (pun intended) by his workload.
This is Smith Henderson's debut novel and as such is a very confident effort but like the parson's egg it is only good in parts and I felt it failed to live up to the lyrical reviews it received. Fourth of July Creek starts well and I was drawn in very quickly by the opening chapters. The focal point of the narrative is Snow's attempts to help Benjamin and his father despite Jeremiah's innate and aggressive hostility towards him. This is an ambitious novel and while it is undoubtedly well-written, it is in my opinion, just far too long and for this reason it palls at several junctures. Another criticism is I found the ending very disappointing and weak.
Yet overall I enjoyed the story well enough and realise there are many readers who will appreciate this book. I am interested to see what Henderson will produce next.
This is a dark and often brutal story set in the backwoods of rural Montana - not brutal in a blood-and-guts way, but in the relentless cruelty of the world. Pete is a social worker and the book opens when he is called by police to a home where a fifteen year old boy is cuffed to his mother, both of them threatening to kill the other - and this sets the mood for the rest of this story.
Pete is a complex character: good-hearted, trying his best to alleviate what misery he can but carrying the baggage of his own imperfect family life. His interactions, most of all, with the Pearl family - the almost feral boy Benjamin, the patriarchal Jeremiah who views the world through an apocalyptic lens - bind this book. But one of the strengths of Henderson's vision is that these characters are not easily written off as mere backwoods clichés - there is a kind of heartfelt integrity about the book which raises it beyond that.
This comes garlanded with praise but though it's assured and sincere, it's really not as 'astonishing', 'masterful' or 'stunning' as is claimed in the gushing cover reviews - it's very good, but there are times when it feels unwieldy, when the writing runs away with Henderson, though it comes good in the end.
So this isn't a feel-good read: it deals with a community where poverty and lack of education leads to drug abuse, sexual abuse and neglect - though even that idea is complicated in Pete's own family history. Ultimately this is unsentimental and unflinching - there are some slivers of hope as the story ends but life is very cruel in the world of this novel.
'Fourth of July Creek' is the debut novel by Smith Henderson, and concerns a social worker in 1980s Montana, dealing with dysfunctional families both at work and home. The setting is well-described, as are the characters. I found the fact that Pete, the protagonist, was not sacked from his job rather unrealistic - although possibly in the 80s his criminal acts would have been tolerated? - but otherwise the tale was generally fairly believable. I did feel rather let down by the ending, especially the complete lack of conclusion of one thread which had run throughout the book.
A good read, although not as masterful as the gushing reviews on the cover would have one believe!
Pete seems to be the exact opposite of what people expect from a social worker, both from a physical perspective and most certainly based on his lifestyle choices.
Alcohol, drugs and violent altercations. The relationship between his ex and their daughter is a shambles. His own family is a superb example of lack of communication and a lifetime of recriminations.
Doesn't exactly seem like the type to solve the problems of children or teens in dire need of help, and yet he does become the single lifeline of many.
Mary seems like such a breath of fresh air in the beginning, perhaps even a chance or a new beginning for Pete. Her childhood and her tragic past creates a void between them.
What must it be like to know that the inevitability of your past is always chasing you. Always being present and at the forefront of people's minds, ergo they judge before they have taken the time to get to know her.
Saying that, is someone who has fallen prey to the system of social care and been dropped into the black hole of Forgotten, able to be anything other than their past? If you have seen, done, or have had every imaginable and unimaginable cruelty done to you, is there a way of ever leaving that behind? When I say behind I mean trying not to let it guide the future, at least not in a negative way.
Curtis is the perfect example of a child on his way into the same type of black hole in the very much overextended social services system. His behaviour is typical of one that has been abused. He is over-sexualized, has a tendency towards unpredictable and violent behaviour. He ends up where Pete knows he will become a lost cause, just another statistic on the path to destruction.
Pete becomes so frustrated at one point that he actually steps into the group of non trustworthy people in the boy's life. The one person Curtis has accepted as a type of anchor in tumultuous seas starts to look more like a dinghy with a hole.
The irony of the story is of course the fate of Pete's daughter. Her life becomes a sequence of predictable events, the type of events that follow in the tread of neglectful parents. Pete swings between worry and forgetting her existence, and he completely ignores her plea for help.
So whilst he is fully prepared to go to the ends of the earth for the children of others his own becomes disappears into the system and out of his life altogether. The reader finds themselves with a conundrum. Is Pete a hero or is he the abuser? How can he bend the rules and go to such extensive lengths to save one family and facilitate the destruction of his own?
I do so enjoy the type of story that ends up shining the light on the perfect imperfection of human nature.
I received a copy of this book via NetGalley, courtesy of Random House UK, Cornerstone.
An enjoyable read from start to finish. Lots of really good character detail. An absorbing read with plenty of gritty realism. Found the interview of the main character's daughter chapters, although relevant, to make the whole a little disjointed. Don't expect a happy ending.
This is a simply a stupendous novel. Set in the rural mountainous area of Montana in the 1980's we meet Pete - he is a social worker, separated from his wife and daughter and likes a drink. His marriage fell apart due to his wife's infidelity and somewhere along the line he also lost the paternal bond with his teenage daughter.
So he asked for the transfer to a rural backwater that despite it location seems to seethe with the same problems that face any urban social worker - albeit without any actual back-up, except a sympathetic judge. He does his best to help those that are on his books, but the road to hell is often paved with the best intentions and for every good deed there seems to be a downside. He is quite clearly a man whose knocks have tried to drive the care from him, but the residue of humanity keeps bringing him back to help. This is juxtaposed with his seeming inability to be even a basic father to his daughter. To say any more, and there is so much more, may be a plot spoiler.
Smith Henderson has written a novel so captivating that he is destined to be acknowledged for the great talent he is. He won the PEN emerging writer award in fiction for 2011, and his quality has far from diminished. He writes in a way so that every scene is painted - even down to the expression on the faces of the players - and that is without saying it. I could not put this down, it has so much of life in it - the good and the very bad. It just seems to be effortlessly excellent. An absolutely stunning story; written by a talented writer who hopefully has a long career ahead of him.
delivered a while ago it sat on my shelf - blame the kindle - but I was missing out.
hard to make a detailed review without spoiling the plot but this is an excellently crafted read - dark but also easy to relate to the main characters.
it's time he released another and I'll be ordering it straight away (on the kindle!)