Fourth of July Creek is full of broken people struggling with their past and present troubles in the rural Montana of the early 1980s. Pete Snow is a social worker who does his best to make life a little better for local families coping–barely–with poverty, addiction, and mental illness. Pete also has his own problems, including alcoholism, a broken marriage, and a teenage daughter who both loves and resents him.
In the course of his work, Pete meets Jeremiah Pearl and his son Benjamin. They live deep in the woods, where the elder Pearl educates his son in the ways of apocalyptic Christianity, elaborate government conspiracies, and white supremacy. Pete’s first impulse is to help them with offers of food and clothing, but he becomes fascinated with Jeremiah and tries to understand how this man descended into paranoia and fanaticism.
The book is at its best when it slowly reveals Pearl’s tragic history. Henderson skillfully manages the tricky task of eliciting sympathy for Pearl despite his cracked worldview. But the novel stumbles in its portrayal of women. Every female character of note is a mess of one flavor or another. I began to wonder if any well-adjusted women even existed in this fictional corner of Montana. I’m sure that Montana, even now, isn’t a bastion of feminist enlightenment, but I really hope it’s not quite so bleak as portrayed in the book.
Henderson is a talented writer and I look forward to his next work, but I hope he can tell a story that portrays women as something other than punching bags and sexual outlets for disaffected men.