Summary and book reviews of Black River by S.M. Hulse

Black River

A Novel

by S.M. Hulse

Black River by S.M. Hulse
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2015, 240 pages
    Paperback:
    Jan 2016, 240 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Sarah Tomp

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About this Book

Book Summary

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.

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.

Excerpt
Black River

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. ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
About The Book

S. M. Hulse's novel Black River is the story of one man's trauma and its profound, years-long aftermath. The consequences of thirty-nine torturous hours of Wesley Carver's life stretch out for years and are deeply felt, not only by him, but by the people he has loved, the loved ones he has lost, and those he comes to love. The narrative alternates between the perspectives of Wesley in the days and months after the death of his beloved wife, Claire, and of Claire herself at different times of her life with Wesley. Their two stories are deeply intertwined, while depicting two distinct experiences of a shared life.

That life together is comprised of many elements, but the thread that holds them together is struggle: the ...
Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

Some of the recent comments posted about Black River. Join the discussion! You can see the full discussion here.

Are we born with talent/ability?
To me, there is some truth to having talent/natural ability but experience is also a key element. Raising a puppy as a child teaches you responsibility and fun but might also make you realize it is rewarding to interact with animals - potential path ... - poniesnpearls

Both Dennis and Wesley bear responsibility for the difficult nature of their relationship—but is it shared equally between them?
When we meet them, they are both adults, so they both share the responsibility. Obviously, that was different when Dennis was younger, and so Wes brings to their new, adult relationship a greater sense of guilt for not being a 'good enough parent,' ... - JLPen77

Do you believe that Bobby Williams's jailhouse conversion to Christianity was authentic?
I think this is left ambiguous to us, as it was to Wes, for a reason: so we can choose, as Wes had to choose, what we WANT to believe. Do we want to be the kind of person who is open to transformation, or do we want to believe that nobody, ourselves ... - JLPen77

Have you ever wished you could do something more?
I'm mostly a 'live today to the best of my current ability' person. Learn and grow. Accept and adapt. Try to be kind and thoughtful. I don't wish for things to be different, but I understand that things that have happened have shaped me and sometimes... - poniesnpearls

Have you had unexpected events in your life that drastically impacted your future for good or for bad?
You're welcome. As I write this, I'm at work, sitting at my check-in/check-out desk, looking around at an empty library. The 5th grade class of the day has come and gone quickly because the 3rd grade is performing a concert on stage in the ... - rorya

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

This carefully told story richly explores themes of loss, revenge and forgiveness, fatherhood, and faith in God through the eyes of one man, Wesley Carver. The precise, evocative prose perfectly mirrors the content of this emotionally wrought debut novel. This a gritty story, dealing with misery and pain. After all, in a prison-town, there is no escaping the fact that bad things happen. Some people commit horrendous crimes. And yet, despite the tough truths, there is also hope, and a deep appreciation for beauty. The story is much like the rugged mountains of Montana: beautiful, yet rough and immense.   (Reviewed by Sarah Tomp).

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Media Reviews

The Los Angeles Review of Books

In her descriptions ... S. M. Hulse writes with the lovely rhythms, spare language, tenderness, and flashes of rage true to the whole novel.

Kirkus Reviews

Starred Review. 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.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. 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.

Library Journal

Starred 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.

Booklist

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.

Author Blurb Siobhan Fallon, author of You Know When the Men Are Gone
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.

Author Blurb Wiley Cash, author of the NYT bestselling A Land More Kind Than Home and This Dark Road to Mercy
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.

Author Blurb Kent Meyers, author of The Work of Wolves
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.

Reader Reviews

bridgnut

Black River
I likes this book and thought it was quite good as a debut. I would look forward to another book by this author.

Tired Bookreader

Full of Surprises
The author took a challenging issue and kept the story moving in unexpected directions. Twice I thought I knew what was going to happen and twice I was wrong. I would recommend this book to anyone looking for a masculine story.

LiteraryLass

Black River
Outstanding debut from Hulse, hard to believe this is her first effort, impressive. Hulse manages to capture the emotional depths of her protagonists. Their three dimensionality, their individual voices and backstory’s all well crafted. I felt she...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

Crafting a Violin

In Black River, Wes's father made a handmade fiddle for his son. This treasured belonging supports many of the story's themes. The fiddle itself is a multi-sensory object. Beyond its key function of making music, it is also visually beautiful, and provides a tactile and kinesthetic release for Wes.

A fiddle and a violin are pretty much the same instrument. Although there can be variance in playing methodology and the set-up of the instrument (including the strings, tuners and bridge), the difference is most significantly a matter of perception and cultural use—and the type of music played. A musician playing classical music is more likely to call the instrument a violin, while a fiddler plays folk music and bluegrass. Or, as is ...

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