Smith Henderson explains the title of ‘Fourth of July Creek’

(Courtesy of Ecco)
(Courtesy of Ecco)

Smith Henderson’s debut novel, “Fourth of July Creek,” is the best novel I’ve read so far this year. The holiday gives me a chance to ask him about that title and how it relates to our national ideals. Here’s what he told me:

“Fourth of July Creek” is an important physical location in the book. It’s always been interesting to me how our cities and towns and rivers and mountains come by their names. I imagined that the Fourth of July Creek in the book was a place where people in days long past used to celebrate Independence Day.

There are a lot of Fourth of July Creeks around the country. In my book, it’s in the Rockies, a wild, beautiful and still-dangerous wilderness just west of Glacier National Park. And the people who live there do so because they want to be in that wilderness, a kind of remoteness. They want to live free, even if that means struggle.

The title suggests the notions that the book explores, American ideals that we continue to work out: the tensions between freedom and community, our individual rights and our collective responsibilities, our independence and interdependence. Which is not to say the book is about citizenship — it’s about children, parents, partners.

A creek is a border, a line, a division. The book crisscrosses.

The title evokes a celebration, but also a flashpoint, violence, the stakes of freedom. So “Fourth of July Creek” is a place, yes, but it is sparse and troubled with the wilderness that is the American heart.

Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.
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