Fourth of July CreekPete Snow is a social worker in the sticks of Montana. It’s cold, rugged, and bleak. The synopsis will tell you he deals with a family called the Pearls. Jeremiah is a survivalist who thinks the world is going to burn and his son, Benjamin, follows in his dads footsteps.

That is the basic narrative of Fourth of July Creek, but it’s only a quarter of it. As much as the story is about Pete and the Pearls, it’s about a few other families as well. I won’t go into much detail about his social work life, but like author Smith Henderson’s description of Montana, the lives these people lead are cold, rugged, and bleak.

This story is harrowing. I think I throw that word out a lot, but the novel can be summed up in that one word. Someone asked me what I was reading and I described it as “the most depressing and best written novel I’ve read in a long time.” It’s true. This catapulted to the top of my list of recent reads.

What is so interesting about it is the ambiguity that Henderson weaves. Some chapters are straight forward. Some switch tense and point of view midway through a page. Some end in this mysterious interviews. Questions and answers between two people about Pete’s daughter Rachel.

Actually, she likes to go by Rose. While the Pearl plot is the selling point, the Rachel Snow plot is the backbone for me. We don’t know much about it at first, but as Pete’s cases begin to get darker, so does his personal life.

If you’re going to read this novel, understand that it hurts. It hurts to read about Benjamin Pearl. It hurts to know Rachel Snow. It hurts watching the lives of a boy named Cecil and a girl named Katie unfold so horrifyingly.

The novel constructs a overarching theme of bleakness and the freedom that can come out of it, but rarely does. Glimmers of hope starkly contrast with the shadows of the past; each character has already gone through so much by the time we meet them that it is hard to swallow. Yet Henderson, sometimes cruelly, makes us forget about that past for the smallest of moments. Only to refocus the pain in the next sentence.

Fourth of July Creek is one of the best books you’ll read. It will also make you hurt. It’s not a sob story, but it does empty everything out of you.

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