Black River
S.M. Hulse
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Buy *Black River* by S.M. Hulseonline

Black River
S.M. Hulse
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
240 pages
January 2015
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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Black River is the compelling narrative of former corrections officer Wesley Carver, who carries his wife’s ashes from Spokane, Washington, to Montana, where her son still lives in a house once owned by Wesley. Black River, in the Montana outback, is a fitting setting for a harsh tale of violence, vengeance and redemption: a prison town where the majority of residents are employed by the Montana State Prison nearby. Claire Carver’s agonizingly slow battle with leukemia challenges Wes to overcome the crippling grief he feels and honor her wishes, bringing her home to his stepson and burial next to her sister in the town cemetery.

Wes managed to separate his work at the prison from home and family for many years, but a prison riot in which he was held captive and tortured by inmate Bobby Williams for thirty-six hours has not only scarred his body but changed the way he views the world. Two years after the riot, Wes and Claire move from Montana to Spokane, sixteen-year-old Dennis staying behind, unable to make peace with the man his mother loves. Without Claire to gentle the two men, both will find the reunion extraordinarily difficult.

Though the damage to Wesley’s body--and his ability to play the fiddle he so loved--is in the past, the constant pain is a daily reminder. So are the soul-searing memories of torture devised by Bobby Williams replaying in Wesley’s imagination, his refusal to show emotion the only way he has managed to endure a changed life, his only shield against the terror of the hours he expected to die. The man who married Claire, stepfather to Dennis, is not the same after the riot. Survival demands a reconfiguring of attitude, the rigid stoicism he embraces creating a chasm between Wes and a rebellious boy on the cusp of manhood. Wes returns to confront a man of thirty-four as disinclined to make small talk as his visitor. The upcoming parole hearing of Williams, who has claimed the cloak of redemption through Christianity, has made this journey even more difficult for Wes, an appearance at the hearing another reason for the trip to Montana.

Hulse’s characters are shaped by the painful circumstances of their reunion. The individual strengths each has honed exacerbates the difficulty of reaching across the years to find common ground, a drama set in the place where it all began, now in the grip of winter: ”The noises of man… were muted, and the sounds of the land--almost too subtle to hear--the descent of the snow, the journeying river, the breath of animals--had woven together in a gentle hush.” The landscape assumes the weight of character, Hulse’s writing capturing the inner turmoil of a grieving husband yearning for the words to bridge past mistakes, shamed by the brokenness of his arms, his hands, the fingers that played a fiddle, a love song to his wife.

The past rises up to meet Wes: the brother-in-law once married to Claire’s dead sister, the prison on the horizon, Bobby Williams, and Dennis, now a grown man on his own. Claire, though gone, is present in chapters that reveal the divided heart of a mother and wife unable to salvage her family after a tragedy. Another character, a sixteen-year-old hired by Dennis to assist with work, draws both Wes and Dennis to a familiar place as the boy grapples with the harshness of his young life, the birth of yet another moment of rage and the promise of redemption, a new pain to be endured.

Ultimately, this is a deeply human tale that calls a man to look into his soul, to claim his faults and shed the burden that has isolated him from those he loves. It is beautifully written, this intimate landscape of flawed humanity, broadened by forgiveness and hope, sadness and sweetness between two men embraced by the unconditional love of a woman who will let neither go.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Luan Gaines, 2015

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