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.
An Indie Next Title • An Indies Introduce Title • Long-listed for the 2015 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize
“Impressive . . . [A] tough, honest novel by a surprisingly wise young writer.” — Washington Post
“A complex and powerful story—put Black River on the must-read list.” — Seattle Times
Wes Carver returns to his hometown—Black River, Montana—with two things: his wife’s ashes and a letter from the parole board. The convict who once held him hostage during a prison riot is up for release. For years, Wes earned his living as a corrections officer and found his joy playing the fiddle. But the riot shook Wes’s faith and robbed him of his music; now he must decide if his attacker should walk free. With “lovely rhythms, spare language, tenderness, and flashes of rage” (Los Angeles Review of Books), S. M. Hulse shows us the heart and darkness of an American town, and one man’s struggle to find forgiveness in the wake of evil.
“Artful . . . Hulse evokes the Montana landscape in lyrical, vivid prose.” — Boston Globe
“Hulse believes that grace happens in a look between two people, or a moment of holding back. A powerful elegy.” — Guardian
The music, she thinks, is supposed to comfort. It’s meant as a kindness; they are relentlessly kind here. It comes from a small plastic stereo the nurse switches on after helping Claire onto the bed. Claire thinks she recognizes the melody, and feels mildly ashamed for not being able to put a name to it. Wesley would know.
He’s outside, in the waiting room. Not reading. Not watching the endlessly looping cable news. Certainly not placing pieces in the unchanging, half-completed jigsaw puzzle near the registration desk. No, Wesley goes still at hard moments. Sets his jaw, lets his features stiffen into an impassive mask, quiets his hands. If some well-meaning person who isn’t wearing scrubs or a white coat tries to say hello or offer a commiserating smile, he either won’t notice or will pretend he hasn’t. But he’ll be watching the comings and goings of every nurse, every doctor. Every opening of the door leading to where she is.
The music isn’t comforting. Too many violins and horns and drums going all at once. Cacophony.
Years ago they didn’t offer sedation for bone marrow biopsies, only lidocaine. Her first time, while Claire lay face-down on the bed waiting for numbness to replace the stinging in her skin, a nurse who looked like a child placed the four-inch trephine needle on a tray in Claire’s line of sight.
Maria, Claire’s doctor had said, we try not to let the patients see those.
Like a meat skewer, Claire decided. Or a knitting needle.
Afterward Wesley asked her if the pain had been bad, and she lied and said not really. He has never liked to be told even gentle untruths, so he doesn’t ask anymore.
She likes simple melodies. A series of single notes that leave a trail she can follow.
Afterward they help her to one of the reclining chairs in the infusion suite and get Wesley. Without asking, he takes a chair from the nurses’ station and rolls it to her side. His hair is backlit by the blue light of a fish tank behind him. He asks how long they have to wait before the nurses will let them leave—it’s a question he asks just for the sake of speech; he knows this routine as well as she does—and she says twenty minutes. She is about to tell him she’s cold, but he’s already standing, moving across the room to the heated cupboard with the warmed blankets folded inside.
Wesley hates coming here, but he now occupies this place as though it is their home, with none of the deference he showed the staff in those first days and weeks. They have become used to the hospital in different ways, she and her husband. Claire feels less like herself here. Meeker. She lets people usher her from room to room, guide her through the stages of her illness. Wesley treats the hospital as territory to be conquered. He is impatient, uninterested—for the first time in his life—in policies or procedures. Wesley is one of those Montana men whose mouths hardly move when they speak, for whom words are precious things they are loath to give up. Here, though, she has heard him raise his voice at the nurses’ station loud enough that she can hear him in her room down the hall. Here he has interrogated and threatened and—once—even begged. Sometimes, when he thinks she is asleep, he prays aloud. He is confrontational with God.
One of the nurses breezes by, depositing two cans of orange juice on the table. More of that maddening courtesy: snacks for the spouse as well as the patient, unasked. For a moment neither Claire nor Wesley moves, and then she begins to unwrap herself from the blanket.
Don’t, he says. I’ll get them.
Wesley, she says. The cans have pull rings on top. He can’t manage pull rings. He fumbles with one anyway, his skewed fingers unable to get enough purchase on the ring to lift it. His face doesn’t betray him—sometimes Claire thinks he trained all the expressions out of his face when he was working at the prison—but she watches the skin over his swollen knuckles blanch and knows it hurts him.
The can slips from between his fingers and clatters against the tile, rolls under her chair. He leans forward to pick it up, but stops halfway, bent, eyes in shadow. Claire reaches from beneath the blanket and puts her hand on his bowed head, brushes his hair back from his forehead. It’s reddish blond, a color more suited to a little boy than a grown man.
Leave it, she tells him. It tastes tinny anyway.
Claire hopes that when Wesley dies, it will be quick. Heart attack. Stroke. Aneurysm. She cannot imagine him with a lingering illness like this one, cannot imagine him subjecting himself to the doctors and nurses, bearing whatever necessary pain they might inflict. Not after the riot.
It is always the two of them waiting. Waiting for the lab results to come back, for Claire’s name to be called, for the drugs to drip into her veins. Waiting for remission. Waiting for news, good or bad. Now they are waiting in one of the exam rooms in her oncologist’s office, on the bench beside the empty countertop where he will plunk down his laptop, open the lid, tilt the screen toward them. Wesley is sitting nearest the counter, so his body will be between hers and the doctor’s numbers. The verdict.
She aims her eyes out the window. The September light has just begun its slow fade from summer-bright, and its gentle cast gilds the edges of the buildings downtown. Claire has never grown to love Spokane, has never come to think of it as her home. It is too obviously fallen from grace, a city with grand but dilapidated architecture and residents who speak fondly of a golden age none of them remember. And the mountains in the distance are so small. Claire misses the mountains in Black River, their immediacy and immensity. These hills are shades of what she left behind.
I hate this fucking clock, Wesley says quietly. The first time she’s heard him swear in thirty years of marriage. Claire looks. An ugly red plastic rim, a pharmaceutical logo emblazoned across the face.
I suppose it was free, she says, but she knows what he means. It’s a loud clock. The hand moves audibly, every second sounded. Gone.
She doesn’t worry about him. He knows how to endure.
They could be wrong, Wesley says in the truck on the way home. They’re at a red light, and the engine idles so loudly she has to strain to hear him. He says, There are other doctors. Better, maybe.
We’ve seen them, Claire says. Seattle. A bigger hospital, more doctors with more letters after their names. More treatments that weren’t quite effective enough. We knew this was coming, Wesley.
We might find someone still willing to try a second transplant.
I’m not, she says. Willing.
Her doctor was kind but honest. He used words like terminal, palliative, hospice. Claire can almost see Wesley turning the conversation over in his mind, looking for the loophole. The sun is on his
Winner of the 2015 Reading the West Book Award
A PEN/Hemingway Finalist
Long-listed for the International IMPAC Dublin Award
Long-listed for the 2015 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize
Semifinalist for the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award
Named an Honor Book for the 2015 Montana Book Award
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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