Review: Black River by S. M. Hulse

black riverTitle: Black River by S. M. Hulse
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Genre: Contemporary, Fiction
Length: 240 pages
Book Rating: A

Complimentary Review Copy Provided by Publisher Through NetGalley


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.

The Review:

Black River is a bittersweet and sometimes heartbreaking story that is, ultimately, uplifting. In this debut novel of love, loss and grief, it is S. M. Hulse’s exploration of faith, forgiveness and redemption that make it such an outstanding and riveting read.

Wes Carver is an ex-corrections officer whose life was forever changed by a prison riot that scarred him both mentally and physically. Now the inmate who kidnapped and tortured him during the riot is up for parole and Wes has two reasons to return to Black River: bury his beloved wife Claire’s ashes and speak at Bobby Williams’ parole hearing.  Also waiting for Wes is his estranged stepson Dennis and the complicated history that resulted in an almost twenty year rift between them. Haunted by his losses and regretful for past mistakes, will Wes be able to let go of the pain and anger he has carried for so many years?

Wes views the world in black and white and he has a very rigid definition of right and wrong. From a generation that carries pain and sorrow deep inside, he does not discuss past mistakes or wrong decisions. Wes is very stoic and unable to articulate his emotions. He is a good man, but his career as a corrections officer coupled with his long held beliefs make it virtually impossible for him to judge a man on his own merits. Underneath Wes’s pragmatic and unemotional demeanor is a deeply spiritual and immensely talented man whose search for faith is challenged by the loss of his ability to play the fiddle and newly discovered information about Bobby Williams.

Wes and Dennis’s reunion is uneasy and fraught with tension. Their unresolved history hovers between them and they step very carefully around one another. Wes is surprised by the changes in Dennis but their past issues sometimes bring glimpses of the boy he used to know to the surface. Wes ignores the opportunities to get to the root of their issues and when he reverts to his old patterns, he destroys what little progress the two men have made in repairing their fractured relationship.

Black River is a poignant novel of healing that is quite compelling. The characters are deeply flawed but sympathetic. Their conflicts are believable and easy to relate to. S. M. Hulse provides a realistic conclusion to the story and while not everything is fully resolved, the overall ending is satisfying and hopeful.   All in all, a very impressive debut novel that is incredibly moving and one that I heartily recommend.

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1 Comment

Filed under Black River, Contemporary, Fiction, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Rated A, Review, S M Hulse

One Response to Review: Black River by S. M. Hulse

  1. Timitra

    Thanks for the review Kathy