A former prison guard and talented fiddler returns to his Montana hometown to bury his wife and confront the inmate who, twenty years ago, held him hostage during a prison riot.
A tense Western and an assured debut, Black River tells the story of a man marked by a prison riot as he returns to the town, and the convict, who shaped him.
When Wes Carver returns to Black River, he carries two things in the cab of his truck: his wife’s ashes and a letter from the prison parole board. The convict who held him hostage during a riot, twenty years ago, is being considered for release.
Wes has been away from Black River ever since the riot. He grew up in this small Montana town, encircled by mountains, and, like his father before him and most of the men there, he made his living as a Corrections Officer. A talented, natural fiddler, he found solace and joy in his music. But during that riot Bobby Williams changed everything for Wes — undermining his faith and taking away his ability to play.
How can a man who once embodied evil ever come to good? How can he pay for such crimes with anything but his life? As Wes considers his own choices and grieves for all he’s lost, he must decide what he believes and whether he can let Williams walk away.
With spare prose and stunning detail, S. M. Hulse drops us deep into the heart and darkness of an American town.
When Wes woke a second time, the sun was already high over the mountains and Dennis was gone. In her last weeks, Claire had slept more and more, going to bed early and rising late, naps throughout the day. The doctors said it was normal, that she’d be harder to wake as they got closer to the end. Wes had slept less and less himself, staying up to watch the rise and fall of her chest, deluding himself into believing vigilance might make a difference. It’d been all he could do not to constantly bring her out of sleep, and sometimes he found himself shifting heavily in bed beside her, just enough to rouse her but pretend it was an accident. A little too easy to sleep long and deep now.
There was coffee in the pot on the kitchen counter, a clean mug beside it. Dennis feeling civil this morning. Wes poured, added a little sugar but no milk. Outside the night chill lingered despite the sun, and the wooden seat of the porch swing felt damp through his jeans. Wes waited for his coffee to cool, enjoying the heat of the mug on his palms. The property looked good. It wasn’t much? — ?twelve acres in all? — ?but it’d always been plenty for Wes’s family, the land narrow east to west but stretching south toward where the river hugged the bottom of the mountain slopes. The foothills rose abruptly here, as though the earth had suddenly run aground of something much stronger and sturdier and been left with nowhere to go but skyward. Old logging roads crossed the bare slopes like neat surgical scars. North of the house it was all wooded, but this side was pasture. Dennis had mowed it, replaced the old barbed wire with white rope, built a metal run-in shed. There were three horses in the field. No? — ?two horses and a mule. They stood a few yards from one another, muzzles buried in separate piles of faded green hay. Wes watched the steady working of their jaws, the absent swishing of tails and twitching of ears.
The letter was still in the glove compartment. Still in its envelope. It had arrived the day of Claire’s last biopsy, sandwiched between a medical bill and an insurance statement. He’d left it alone then. Overwhelmed. Other things to attend to. Truth was, Wes had a pretty good idea what was inside that envelope, and he thought he might put off opening it until it’d be too late to do anything about it. Probably not too late yet. Probably ought to leave it alone for a few more weeks.
In the pasture, the red horse began eating the mule’s hay. The mule pinned his long ears, squealed and brayed, but the red horse ignored him and after a minute the mule walked to the vacant hay pile, swishing his meager tail hard against his flanks.
Wes set his coffee on the porch, crossed the yard to the truck. One of the horses, the black one, raised his head to watch. The envelope was made of cheap paper, had lost its crispness after a night in the glove compartment. There was a familiar black ink-stamped return address in the corner, not straight: The State of Montana Department of Corrections. Been a long while since Wes got a letter with that mark. He settled back on the porch and took his pocketknife off his belt. Twice he got his thumbnail against the groove in the blade, and twice the knife slipped from his fingers. He tried once more, forcing his grip until the deep ache flared in his joints and the knife clattered to the porch, skittering across the wooden boards and over the edge into the grass. The simplest fucking things. The black horse was still watching.
Wes stood, retrieved the knife. Finally got it open, slipped the blade beneath the envelope’s flap and sliced. One sheet inside, the message short and to the point: The State of Montana Department of Corrections inmate Robert F. Williams had come eligible for parole. He, Wesley J. Carver, had the right to deliver a statement at the hearing. No acknowledgment there that he’d given twenty-one years of his life, and then some, to the service of the state. Just the same duty-done letter Victim Services sent to everyone, impersonal enough it took a more generous man than Wes not to think they were hoping folks would stay out of it altogether. It was dated three weeks ago. Still relevant for another five.
So there it was. Bobby Williams, getting another chance. Wes waited for shock, disbelief, but he’d kept a tally of the months and years going in his head, and he knew the math was right. He wasn’t naïve. Money played a role in parole decisions, and space, and manpower, and politics. All sorts of things that had nothing to do with justice. He could accept that. What made him angriest, then, wasn’t anything to do with the DOC or the state or the parole board, but the fact that Williams’s name still brought with it the memory of the sloppy crunch of breaking bone, that it still sent Wes’s gut into spasm and set his heart racing. That the mere memory of the man still brought forth these symptoms of fear.
He heard the grind of gravel and looked up. Arthur Farmer? — ?once Wes’s friend and neighbor, widower to Claire’s sister? — ?was only a few yards away, scuffing his boot heels in the driveway so Wes would hear him coming. His horse stood on the other side of the property fenceline, stock-still, its reins dropped to the ground. Farmer stopped when he was still a little farther away than most folks would’ve come. He nodded. Knew better than to offer his hand. “Wesley.”
He looked older, of course? — ?Wes so plainly saw age on everyone but himself? — ?but in no way frail. Be like an ox till the day he died. A wide white mustache hid his upper lip, and a dusty bone-colored felt hat covered what had to be a balding head. Farmer was almost seventy now, and his blue eyes were rheumy and seemed to have faded in the years since Wes had last seen him, like paint exposed to years of sun and wind and snow. Looked right at you, so damned sincere.
Wes stood, took one step down from the porch. “Arthur.”
“I’m so sorry about Claire.”
Wes didn’t do well with sympathy. Never had. There would be cards piling up back at home, well-meaning but trite condolences, and he’d toss them all unopened. “Well.” He took another step down to the gravel, rocked a stone against the sole of his boot. “Known for a long time she might not make it.”
Farmer looked sideways, like Wes had done something it wasn’t polite to stare at. “Shame a lady like her should have to go through that.”
“Deserved better,” Wes agreed. He listened to his own voice critically, made an adjustment as he spoke. He knew how to do that, control tone and note. Music, really.
“Will there be a service?”
“No. Claire didn’t really believe in all that.”
“She wants to be buried near her sister.”
Winner of the 2015 Reading the West Book Award
A PEN/Hemingway Finalist
Washington State Book Award Finalist
Long-listed for the 2015 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize
Semifinalist for the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award
Short-listed for the Reading the West Book Awards
Named an Honor Book for the 2015 Montana Book Award
Nominated for the ?International Dublin Literary Award 2017
February 2015 Indie Next Title
An ABA's Winter/Spring 2015 Indies Introduce title
One of the Seattle Times's "Best Books of 2015"
Named One of the Choice Books by the RUSA Committee(ALA)
"This Montana-based story, about a prison guard who returns to his hometown after decades away, is an intricate work that layers faith with broken promises, broken bones, and broken hearts. This is a story of people shaped irrevocably by place and circumstance."—Seattle Times, "Best Books of 2015"
"A promising debut...the lyrical landscapes and the emotional weather are in place." --John Williams, The New York Times
"Impressive...[a] tough, honest novel by a surprisingly wise young writer." --Ron Charles, The Washington Post
"Hulse evokes the Montana landscape in lyrical, vivid prose...[she] is a gifted wordsmith with promising dramatic instincts." --The Boston Globe
"The assured rhythms of the language convey grace, restraint, insights, power, and beauty. Black River transcends its setting and the circumstances of a few people in a small Montana town to say something true and enduring about violence and families, and grief and compassion." -- Los Angeles Review of Books
"Transcending its genre-fiction setting, Black River is a powerful meditation on faith, family and redemption set in present-day Montana."--The Guardian
"This first novel pulses with dramatic tension and emotional resonance... Hulse’s story is lyrical, elegiac and authentic. Watch for it on best-of-the-year lists." -- BBC Culture
"This top-of-the-line modern American Western debut explores the themes of violence, revenge, and forgiveness with a sure hand...From the bluegrass theme to the Western rural setting, Hulse handles his story like a pro."--Publishers Weekly, starred and boxed review
"Heads up—Hulse is a smart writer, able to reveal her character’s gut-level emotions and trickiest self-manipulations. Comparing the author to Annie Proulx, Wallace Stegner, or Kent Haruf is no exaggeration. Her debut is bound to turn readers’ hearts inside out and leave them yearning for some sweet, mournful fiddle music." --Library Journal, starred review
"Hulse debuts with a stark, tender tale about one man's quest for faith and forgiveness...By making Wes' suffering so palpable, Hulse makes it even more moving when, in the novel's final pages, he achieves something he's been seeking for a very long time: grace. Profound issues addressed with a delicate touch and folded into a strong story populated by wrenchingly human characters: impressive work from a gifted young artist." --Kirkus, starred review
"Hulse clearly loves Montana, and her own fiddle playing and knowledge of horses shine through the novel. She maintains suspense and manages to avoid the clichés of redemption stories in this assured debut." --Booklist, starred review
"Black River tackles themes of Old Testament proportion—the inheritance of sin, deliverance and damnation, good and evil. Its characters wrestle with their pasts and each other; their collisions are filled with rage, miscommunication, and occasionally the wistful hope for a second chance. With an empathic touch, this sophisticated debut illuminates how fine a line there can be between vengeance and redemption. This is a story you won’t forget.”
—Siobhan Fallon, author of You Know When the Men Are Gone
"The prose in S.M. Hulse's debut novel Black River mirrors the Montana land in which it's set: spare, powerful, and dangerous. This is a novel about love born from violence, about families torn apart by tragedy, and about a community that must take a long, hard look at its past if it's ever going to see its future. Like Kent Haruf and Larry McMurtry, S.M. Hulse knows the landscape about which she writes, and she understands the hearts of those who live there."
—Wiley Cash, author of the NYT bestselling A Land More Kind Than Home and This Dark Road to Mercy
"Hulse writes with great clarity and precision, her language a celebration of rigor and intensity, and with such awareness of human rage and love—and fear of love—that her novel Black River feels like a river itself, teeming and unexpected and driven. She has an amazing sensibility for creating the understated, the emotionally-pressurized, the contained-and-explosive, the unsaid-and-impossible-to-say. One of the great joys of reading this novel is watching how she manages this—and how her perfect balance allows her deeper and deeper insights into the ways that people, especially men, negotiate their love for, and their fear of, each other and themselves."
—Kent Meyers, author of The Work of Wolves
"Like her forbears Kittredge, Proulx, Carlson, Hulse examines the mountains and rivers of the west, its implacable beauty, and makes the landscape her own. In Wesley Carver she has made a mountain of her own, fashioned and then refashioned by the forces of memory, bitterness, and finally, forgiveness. A wonderful debut by a welcome new voice."
—Ehud Havazelet, author of Bearing the Body
"A lovely austerity infuses this story of damage and redemption, and makes it glow. Hulse is a wise and compassionate writer who understands the tricky and heartbreaking borders between principle and rigidity, justice and revenge. Her debut novel is provoking and memorable."
—Deirdre McNamer, author of Red Rover and My Russian“Black River is one of the best debut novels I've read in a long time. S.M. Hulse is a smart and sensitive writer, utilizing strong, clean and evocative prose to tell us of Wes Carver, a man who is wrestling with the world and himself, haunted by an old horror, tattered family bonds, a wife who is dead but not gone.”
—Daniel Woodrell, author of Winter’s Bone, The Maid’s Version, and others
“Black River is such a vivid, compelling debut novel. S.M. Hulse is an astute guide to an implacable western landscape of grief, violence and redemption.”
—Jess Walter, author of Beautiful Ruins, The Financial Lives of the Poets, and others
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