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The American West has long been a haven for people who want to be left alone and those who despair of society. And, as throughout the world, there are people who just cannot seem to handle the most basic aspects of daily life, whether it's because of physical or psychological limitations, often with addiction's ruthless grasp.

But loners and misfits aren't always alone. Sometimes they have families and those families have children -- children who may be loved or who may be barely endured, but either way, they can be children who are not cared for.

Pete Stone is a social worker assigned to a vast territory in the northwest corner of Montana, with sparsely settled pockets not of civilization, but of small towns or places out in the woods. He's like a lot of those people. His marriage is broken, his teenage daughter is sullen and doesn't get much attention from a father with a demanding job, and he drinks. A lot. His successes trying to help children and listen to the adults purportedly caring for them are few but he still plugs away at it.

Between other hard-luck cases, Pete is called when a wild child appears at a school one day. Even in the pre-computerized days of the late '70s and early '80s, the dawn of the Reagan era, it's unusual for a boy like that to have no presence in the system. The boy, Benjamin, doesn't consider himself neglected. He and his pa live in the woods off the land. Headed up toward camp, Benjamin's father warns Pete away, obviously willing to shoot him.

That father is the fabled Jeremiah Pearl, who knows the end times are coming. His dearly loved wife saw the signs coming and had the whole troop of Pearls, including all the young ones, leave Indiana and head for the woods where they might have a chance to survive.

Pete leaves foodstuffs and clothes in a niche in the woods. Sometimes things get taken. The distrustful Pearl gradually doesn't quite trust Pete, but accepts his help and then him. In between spells when they spend some time traipsing through the land, Pete's wife leaves Montana for Texas, where there is a chance of a man taking care of her and their daughter, and their daughter realizes she's got nowhere to go. So she leaves. And it's about as blandly dire as one would think.

The sections where Pete tries to navigate the system through several states, trying to find a young runaway daughter, show how easily children fall through the cracks of a social system set up to protect them, and the heartbreak of parents who love their children but don't know how to take care of them.

So do the sections where that daughter, Rachel, becomes a child of the streets. Those who are caught up in the system, including one of Pete's cases, are rarely safer than those who escape it. The situation is the same for adults, as seen by Pete's brother, who popped his parole agent a good one and who is now on the run.

Whether it's parents who can't handle being parents, children forced to grow up and fend for themselves, people who believe what they are told or people who don't believe the evidence in front of their faces, Henderson's debut novel is filled with innocents who wonder about what has happened to them or who cannot handle what they see going on. Most of the people in the novel feel helpless about what they see, whether it's a small-town judge heartbroken when Reagan wins, a social worker who was an abused child or a federal agent who regrets the choices he has made.

About the only people who don't feel helpless are Pearl and his son. Pearl is a combination of just about every paranoid, black helicopter-fearing loner who have inhabited the crannies of Northwest empty places for decades. He's also far more than that, and the dull despair that sometimes enshrouds Henderson's people is a great contrast to this character who searched so hungrily for something to believe in, and chose wrongly. Henderson doesn't have to choose sides about his characters, including Pearl, because he brings them to full-bodied life instead.

Henderson's novel earns its humanizing, heartfelt climax and coda both because the scope of the characters' journeys are so well-drawn and because the little details are so right. This is where sense of place comes in, and where having been where Henderson's characters are, I can attest to how right he gets it.

My grandparents owned 10 acres carved out of Forest Service land in North Idaho back then that they would visit the way some people go to a lakeside cabin. It was accessible only by snowmobile in the winter, and the summer drives in were dusty after mud season was finally over. (Mud season is when the snow has melted but the ground is still so soft that the dirt roads are mudholes. I had one friend who lived up a dirt road in the woods who had to haul her groceries in on an old wooden sled, leaving the truck at the bottom of a slight hill.) It's not always easy to get into places and people who want to keep to themselves could easily do so.

One of my grandparents' neighbors was a Vietnam vet who was fortunate to have some land of his own to keep to himself. He didn't mean harm to people, but he wasn't comfortable around many. My grandfather, whose good opinion was sought, was one that Larry always enjoyed seeing. They didn't talk politics or things like that. They talked about the state of the trees and what animals they had seen that morning.

Years after Grandpa passed away, I ended up working in the same neck of the woods at a small daily paper. Larry showed up one day with a bunch of cassette tapes and small notebooks filled with pages of carefully drawn symbols. Because I was Gilbert's granddaughter, he said he felt safe leaving them with me. I have no idea what they contained, they made no sense to me. I talked to some of the authorities about them, not to report Larry, but to see if they knew what this stuff was. They didn't either and they agreed to leave him be because they said they didn't see him as a threat to anyone. I didn't hear from Larry again and I hope he didn't hear from the authorities.

But it's easy to see how the whole episode could have spun out of control, much as things do in Henderson's novel. It's easy to see that Jeremiah Pearl and Larry would have found some common ground, perhaps in the coins that Pearl alters as a warning.

Even in those pre-Ruby Ridge days, we figured at least as many people lived off the grid as were accounted for in the 1980 census. And that was when people didn't have a problem with taking part in the census. There were, however, plenty of people who could have gotten in trouble similar to that situation with shotguns and public stand-offs, and that also made this novel resonate all the more.

Henderson has written a compassionate novel about people in a specific time and place. It is also a deeply political novel in that it shows how political and economic movements can come from a few ideas that may not make sense when a philosophy is deconstructed, but which gain credence when people feel they have missed out. When people who yearn from something better believe there is nothing better, Henderson's novel shows how worse it can get for so many.

The novel demonstrates where many of the anti-government sentiments seen today come from. The antecedents of the Tea Party faithful were sown in this era, when a new president promised them the sun would shine on their promised land again. That someone tried to assassinate him only confirmed they were right believing in end times prophecies. There are moments of anger in the novel that show where the anti-government people came from.

But still, but still. The world has many people like Pete Snow, who don't have illusions about sorrow but who also believe they should do little, concrete, specifc acts of human kindness when they can. When people like Pete Snow do that, the world does not lose to despair. And neither does Fourth of July Creek.

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Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Tue Aug 05, 2014 at 05:00 PM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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