Book Reviews

Black River by S. M. Hulse

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I’ve sat on this review for some time not knowing how to do this Contemporary Western debut any justice. But I’ll try.

Wes Carver is returning to small town, Black River, Montana after being gone for many years. He has with him two things, his wife’s ashes and a letter from the prison parole board announcing the possible release of inmate Bobby Williams. Wes was a corrections officer, as most men growing up in Black River become. One day changed his life when he was held hostage by Williams during a prison riot and was tortured beyond repair. He now has to not only face Williams, but the stepson, life and memories he left behind.

Why would anyone like a story about a man’s inner turmoil with flashbacks of the horrendous torture he endured which left him disfigured? Here is the case for superb writing. Hulse creates this quiet, sparse, literary novel which doesn’t focus on the obvious. She sets the backdrop of Western Montana. The only setting this story could take place. She evokes emotion from the reader not in the shocking, disturbing scenes but in the quiet moments. The moments Wes spends with Claire as she is dying, the tense encounters with stepson Dennis, the backstory to when Claire and Wes first met, his pride and joy of playing the fiddle. There is even a scene between Wes and an old horse that did me in.

Wes is not the most likeable character. His reserve, his choices, his inability to be emotional should make him feel distant as a character, but Hulse draws you in to want to know him more. Help him. Understand his reasons. He is a quiet man who just wants to live his simple life. He follows rules, he works hard, a man of his word. So much so that he continues to try and keep his faith even when he has many reasons to turn his back on it. There are so many other substories cleverly woven throughout the book: faith, father/son relationships, nature vs. nurture, music, the symbolism of the prison. Without dissecting it too much, it’s just a powerfully quiet read that is a favorite this year.

Black River by S. M. Hulse was released on January 20, 2015. This short 240 page debut was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and picked up a copy from my library.

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