I Pity the Poor Children

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Fourth of July Creek, by Smith Henderson

Literature, novels, and possibly poetry more than any other discipline, seem to tap into the collective consciousness more deeply than any other social chronicling. And one of the subjects that come up over and over in the novels I’m drawn to is the plight of children in an increasingly unsheltered world. Runaways. Child prostitutes. Violence toward children. The violence of children that have been unsheltered, that come to react to their environment in violent ways because those are the only ways they know.
In Henderson Smith’s book, a novel that sends its tentacles across time and place, we become acquainted with the children of Jeremiah Pearl, a man deeply paranoid, a survivalist clinging to distorted Biblical understandings, and his vision obsessed wife. These children want more than a life on the run in the dark forests of Montana, but they can only live on the edge of their father’s harshness and violence. We meet a few of these folks through the book’s central character, Pete Snow, a social worker, who intends to help these children despite Jeremiah’s paranoia.

But Pete has problems, too.

His wife Beth has had an affair, and the couple separate, Beth taking young daughter Rachel with her to Texas. Beth isn’t exactly an ideal mother – she drinks, does drugs, hangs out with unsavory men, one of which apparently attempts to rape Rachel. As with most children of tortured, broken marriages, Rachel feels trapped and decides Austin’s mean streets offer more promise. The book intermittently chronicles Rachel’s (later known as Rose) descent into street life and prostitution. While Beth sits at home in Austin drinking and praying, Pete roams the Northwest looking for his daughter, constantly crossing paths with the Pearl family.

Finally, Pete, who has a drinking problem of his own, becomes the victim of his attempts to salvage lives he finds impossible to rehabilitate, and ends up the subject of a manhunt. Henderson resolves nothing in Fourth of July Creek, and this is, ironically, his project. In a sense he’s the literary child of Steinbeck and Cormac McCarthy, bent on showing us a naked view of down-and-out people, especially their children, in a world that would just as well be rid of them.

Henderson’s book reads as if written randomly, as if written in bouts of inspiration that aren’t necessarily connected. His prose careens to the edges of coherence at times, making this a somewhat difficult read. I’ve learned, though, that such flaws aren’t to be taken all that seriously. This book’s strength is in the characters, Henderson’s spotlight on people who belong to the night, to the woods, that have been forsaken by society. And that makes this one of the most powerful books you’ll read this year.

My rating: 16 of 20 stars

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