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Fourth of July Creek

"The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: 'I'm from the government and I'm here to help.'"

That line was a big laugh-getter for President Ronald Reagan, but it illustrated the anti-government spirit of the Reagan revolution in the 1980s. Government was the problem, even when government was the solution.

That spirit may have taken its firmest hold in the modern American West, which still embraced an independent frontier spirit even as many of its residents lived in abject poverty. It’s against this political backdrop that Smith Henderson has set his impressive first novel, “Fourth of July Creek.” “Fourth of July” is a quintessentially American phrase, and a creek symbolizes a divide. But it’s not a river, and one of the surprising turns of this novel is that people on opposite sides of the divide may be closer together than they appear. Or even want to be.

The year is 1980, and Pete Snow is a do-gooder social worker who tries to take care of poor children and their families living in the Montana wilderness. They resent his help, openly. In a stunning opening chapter, Pete tries to aid a single mother and her two starving children, only to get in the middle of an incident with the police. Henderson’s description of the mother is pitiless: “She ventured out only to get her SSI check and visit her dealer somewhere up on the edge of the Yaak Wilderness. Sometimes to get cereal.”

But we learn that Pete isn’t much better than the sad souls he tries to shepherd. Back home, his marriage has fallen apart, and he sinks into a drunken fog as his wife and young daughter Rachel head out for Texas. In alternating chapters, in a Q&A format, we learn what happens to Rachel, and it’s a story every bit as dire as the case files of Pete’s clients.

Searching for people to help so he doesn’t have to face his own problems, Pete happens upon an emaciated 12-year-old boy, Ben. He learns that Ben’s father is Jeremiah Pearl, a notorious and dangerous hermit who lives in the forest and spouts wild theories about the government.

Both repulsed and attracted by a man who is his complete opposite, Pete starts hanging out in the forest with Jeremiah and his son, listening to his crackpot theories about currency manipulation and government surveillance. (If a commercial airliner flies overhead, Jeremiah immediately switches camps.)

But Jeremiah is dangerous enough to draw the attention of the FBI, who have been hunting white supremacist groups in Montana. And soon Pete finds himself caught in the middle, finding that his attempts at “helping” may do more harm than good, to himself as well as others.

“Fourth of July Creek” is a tough novel, one where children are often the innocent victims of the mistakes their fathers make. (Probably not the best Father’s Day present.) But Henderson finds an ounce of redemption in each of his characters, no matter how misguided they are. Even Jeremiah, who at times seems like a pamphlet come to life, turns out to have hidden depths.

The book hurtles forward with the velocity of a thriller, as we sense Pete and Jeremiah and their respective views of the America they want to live in moving to an unavoidable collision. It’s a big novel, in ambition as well as in size, and it's eloquent in the way it welds its personal stories to its larger, ongoing argument about which vision of America should prevail.

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Rob Thomas is the features editor and social media editor for the Capital Times, as well as its film critic. He joined the Cap Times in 1999 and has written about movies, music, food and books.