Fourth of July Creek, the robust debut of Portland, Ore.-based novelist Smith Henderson, follows the life of Pete Snow, a state social worker in the fictional town of Tenmile, Mont.

At work, Snow is steady and skillful, able to calm frightened children and parse messy domestic situations. But after hours, he’s an alcoholic prone to unbridled benders, alienated from his own land-baron dad and fugitive brother. He has lived in an isolated cabin ever since he left his cheating wife.

One day in the early 1980s, a disheveled child named Benjamin wanders into the town, west of Glacier National Park. Pete buys Benjamin new clothes and medicine for giardia and scurvy, and returns him to the remote spot the boy calls home. Benjamin’s father, Jeremiah, a wild-bearded, scripture-quoting, shotgun-toting survivalist, collects his son while threatening Pete with a “fatal wrath.” But Pete refuses to give up on this odd family, gradually befriending them as you might a pair of skittish wild animals.

Meanwhile, after Pete’s hard-partying wife moves to Texas, their 13-year-old daughter, Rachel, runs away. Pete, who blames himself for neglecting his daughter, takes off on a cross-country mission to rescue her. As he tells his estranged wife, “I take kids away from people like us.” We learn what’s happening to Rachel through question-and-answer sessions interspersed throughout the novel, in which she details all she endures as she drifts.

Fourth of July Creek is rife with painfully honest, hard-won insights about kids out on the street or caught up in the system; the author once worked at a group home for juveniles in Missoula, and his experience brings a unique authenticity to the story.

At times, the novel is so bleak that only the precision and beauty of Henderson’s language keep you from flinching away: “Medallions from the quaking aspen lay about in a golden hoard, blowing up in parade confetti as he drove through them.” But keep reading, and you’ll find yourself caring about the wounded people who stagger through this book too much to ever want to leave them.

It seems as if Henderson felt the same way—he ends the book in mid-sentence, the fate of one character not fully revealed. Expect the praise for this rich, heartbreaking novel to continue for years to come.

This review was originally published in High Country News.

Fourth of July Creek

By Smith Henderson


480 pages, $26.99