My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Pete Snow is a walking contradiction. As a social worker for the Department of Family Services in Montana, he spends his working hours trying to rescue troubled and often neglected or abused children. He is preternaturally kind, patient, helpful, and non-judgmental. But off the job, we see that Pete is no stronger than the people he is charged with helping. Perhaps he has such empathy for them because he is just like them. He is an alcoholic, a failed husband and father. He is estranged from his own father and brother. He is, in short, a mess. Anguish seems to be his natural default emotion.
We meet Pete in a family scene where a young girl is nearly drowned by her drunk father. It turns out that the father is Pete. His unfortunate daughter, Rachel, lives in a household with two dysfunctional, alcoholic parents. She really needs a social worker to save her. But she is not so fortunate. Eventually, the parents separate and she lives with her mother. Pete becomes just an occasional visitor to her life. It should really be a surprise to no one when, as a young teenager, she runs away from home and begins a life on the streets.
Much of the book, in fact, deals with Pete's desperate efforts to find and retrieve his runaway daughter. While most of the narrative is told through Pete's perspective, interspersed throughout are sections told in Q. and A. conversation format with Rachel. We see her doing whatever she needs to do to survive on her own.
All of this, though, is just a subplot that helps us to better understand the wounded psyche of Pete Snow. The main action of the book deals with Pete on the job as he struggles against seemingly insurmountable odds to save three children: a sullen teenager named Cecil, his sweet little sister Katie, and Benjamin Pearl, the son of a backwoods conspiracy theorist, paranoid survivalist named Jeremiah Pearl.
In trying to help the kids, Pete makes mistake after mistake and often despairs that he will ever be able to get them out of the awful, soul-wrenching situations in which they live. Eventually, he does have some success with Katie, the little girl with whom he has bonded and in whom he sees perhaps a reflection of his own lost daughter. Her brother, Cecil, is a much harder nut to crack.
Cecil sabotages every move Pete makes to try to help him until he, too, runs away and winds up on the street, where, remarkably enough, he does find a true friend. Soon enough though, he runs afoul of the law and winds up in a nightmare juvenile facility from which Pete works to extract him.
Meanwhile, a dirty, scruffy, almost feral boy wanders into town and into the school. Pete is called to deal with the boy. This is his introduction to Benjamin Pearl, the case that will consume his time throughout the remainder of the book. Through Benjamin, he meets Jeremiah, who is immersed in end-times ideology. He has a hoard of gold that he will exchange for buffalo-head nickels so that he can deface them with anti-government and anti-Semitic imagery. These mutilated nickels have become very popular in the anarchistic backwoods of Montana where they are collector's items.
Curiously, and against all odds, a bond develops between Jeremiah and Pete. Perhaps Pete sees a bit of himself in the man, since he, too, feels that he has ruined everything in his life.
It seems incredible that this is Smith Henderson's first novel. It is packed with eloquent, evocative prose that describes in exquisite detail the grim, hardscrabble lives of its characters. Those characters themselves are unforgettable. They are beset with every form of human frailty and yet they have a dignity that is hard to deny. At some point in the book there is a line about how "all of life can be understood as casework." As someone who spent all of her working life in the field of social work, I found myself nodding at that sentiment.
Finally, Henderson's writing reminded me of the work of another writer. I pondered about who it was and finally it came to me - Richard Ford. He has the same kind of eloquence with a rather spare style. I was particularly reminded of Ford's Canada. That's pretty good company, I think, and this gripping story stands up well in comparison.
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