Spokane author S.M. Hulse’s powerful debut novel, “Black River,” tells the story of a former guard in a Montana prison, mutilated in a long-ago prison riot, who returns to his former town when his tormentor comes up for parole.
by S.M. Hulse
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 240 pp., $24
There’s an encouraging trend of young female writers with Northwestern roots who are asserting themselves in the production of high-caliber Western literature. In 2012, Amanda Coplin published her haunting tale of a lonely older man in an Eastern Cascades valley in her assured debut novel, “The Orchardist.” Now Spokane author S.M. Hulse does something similar in her first novel, “Black River.” And just as Coplin made the literary world take notice with the authority of her stark but lyrical tale, Hulse, too, writes with carefully meted-out nuance to deliver this story of people shaped irrevocably by place and circumstance.
This time the place is Black River, a small Montana town where the biggest employer — the state prison — casts a pall over everyone who lives there, whether or not they’re behind bars.
The lonely man in this novel is retired security guard Wes Carver, returning to Black River after a couple of decades away. He is coming back to scatter the ashes of his wife, Claire, who has succumbed to leukemia. They had moved away from Black River after Wes, then a prison guard, had been held captive and tortured in a prison riot. But the final impetus for their departure had been the threat of violence right at home, after growing hostility between Wes and his teenage stepson came to a dangerous head.
Wes has a second purpose for returning to Black River. Bobby Williams, the convict who had held him hostage and mutilated him all those years ago, is coming up for parole consideration. Wes has faced a lot of loss in his life: his father to suicide, his wife to cancer, and his special talent and solace — fiddling — to the brutal attack inside prison walls that left him with permanently crippled hands. This last is the only loss he can do something about — he aims to speak against Williams’ plea for release.
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And while he’s waiting for the date of the parole hearing, he needs to put things right with the other people he left behind in Black River so long ago.
This novel is an intricate work that layers faith with broken promises, broken bones, broken hearts. It invokes an imaginary soundtrack of ticking clocks, bluegrass tunes and the spare cadences of Westerners whose stoicism cannot entirely mask the disappointments and hurts that have come their way.
Hulse devotes particular attention to the bonds and the betrayals between fathers and sons, sketching out an array of relationships and the unique insufficiencies of each one.
This is also a story that differentiates between mending and healing. Does a corrections facility really put inmates on the path to social rehabilitation? Can doctors really find a way to repair shattered bodies or cure disease? Can prayer forestall devastation? Can forgiveness bring reconciliation?
The story has only a few missteps — the most apparent seems to be dictated by the story’s time frame, when a young character responds to Wes’ offer of assistance with more alacrity than can be expected of most phlegmatic teens.
But overall, this is a complex and powerful story — put “Black River” on the must-read list for 2015.