Black River, S.M. Hulse’s debut novel, is one of those books that come around every so often to remind me of why I so much enjoy reading and why I am always willing to take a look at debut novels and books by new-to-me authors. It is that good. The novel tells the story of Wes and Claire Carver, man and wife, who left Black River eighteen years earlier because of what happened to them in that little Montana town. Now, Wes is back. And he really doesn’t want to be there.
For generations, the best paying jobs in Black River have been inside the walls of the local prison. Many of the prison’s correction officers, in fact, have fathers who themselves once held the same jobs they are working today. Wes Carver is no exception, but for Wes it all went terribly wrong during a prison riot during which he was taken hostage by a psychopath – and tortured for 39 hours. Wes, even though he worked at the prison another two years, emerged from that experience a broken man, both physically and mentally. Then, after a near violent confrontation at the dinner table between Wes and his stepson, he and Claire leave Black River to start a new life for themselves in Spokane, Washington.
|S. M. Hulse|
Now Wes has returned to Black River for two very different reasons: to bring Claire’s ashes back to her son and to testify at the parole hearing of the man who almost tortured him to death twenty years earlier. Finally forced to confront all his old demons (including his relationship with the step-son he has barely spoken to for the past eighteen years), Wes is not having an easy time of it. Now his friends are starting to wonder which of the two tasks will destroy him first.
Black River, largely told through flashbacks, is filled with interesting characters and plot twists, and its setting is so vividly rendered by Hulse that the reader gets a clear feeling of what life in such a geographically isolated and self-contained location must be like. This is a place with few secrets, a place where newcomers are not particularly welcome, a place where families have known each other for generations. And they like it that way.
No, this is not a perfect novel. But it is one that I highly recommend, and one that has turned me into an S.M. Hulse fan. I can’t wait to see what she does next.