Loss and guilt haunt our future. When we look forward, these are the two characteristics that keep us from experiencing total separation from our past. We want to regain that which has left us, and we certainly want to amend our mistakes. In truth, what lies behind us, whether with wet or dry tracks, dictates how far we’ll ever be able to go. For many of us, moving on is nearly impossible. In the masterful Black River, debut novelist S.M. Hulse sets out to explore how much loss a man can take, and Hulse seems to wonder if maybe dealing with one’s guilt can change things.
When we meet sixty-year-old, retired corrections officer Wes Carver, our rather stubborn protagonist, we immediately know he’s someone with whom we can bond. While he’s not an emotionally open man, Wes reveals enough that we are able to trust him, which is necessary in this kind of sincere, tender novel. He’s a quiet man, who doesn’t swear. He doesn’t yell or cause public scenes. He’s someone who very much tries to stay away from trouble and conflict. It’s too bad that it doesn’t treat him the same way.
Wes loves his wife, Claire. Really loves her—and honors her. When she’s sick, he cradles her. He moves cities for her. And in truth, he lives for her. In one of the novel’s most emotional moments, Wes remembers asking Claire what she wanted from her life. Her reply is simple. She says, “This.” Hulse quietly shows how Wes and Claire’s love is not one-sided.
Hulse seemingly presents Wes as a kind of masculine Western necessity. He’s a man who is strong, unafraid, and untouchable. Or is he?
As Black River quickly progresses, it becomes clear that Wes is very different than his exterior might make one believe. Wes is, in fact, a deeply hurting man. Claire is dying of leukemia; his hands, which he relied on so much to play his beloved fiddle, are increasingly beyond repair; his bond with his God is on the rocks; and his relationship with his angry stepson, Dennis, is tedious at best. Hulse’s characterization of her protagonist seems rather dark—maybe even initially cruel; however, she counters all these feelings of darkness with what seems to be the novel’s most prevalent message: a little hope, fairness, and forgiveness might not heal us, but it can keep us going for another day.
To find this sense of rightness, Wes has to leave his home in Spokane, and he has to travel to where his past exists—in Black River. Much of Wes’ past revolves around an attack that occurred when he worked as a corrections officer. The man responsible for ruining Wes’ hands is up for a parole hearing, and Wes wants to hear the man’s plea for freedom. Besides his wife, the only thing Wes claims to have purely loved throughout his life is the music from his fiddle.
Hulse’ talent is immense, and she shows the greatest command of her prose when writing the scenes of Wes and his music. Her writing becomes atmospheric, floating from the valleys, bouncing against the mountains, and soaring into the air. Wes remembers his moments on the stage with great fondness. Hulse describes Wes’ feelings of bliss: “The moment didn’t last long. The note had to end—though sometimes Wes wondered if he might sustain it forever—and when it ended people drifted out of the collective pause. By the time Wes took his fiddle from beneath his chin and nodded his head in an awkward bow, all was back to the way it had been three minutes earlier.” Imagine someone taking that feeling from you. I would want to attend that hearing, too.
While in Black River, Wes tries to move on, but his past haunts him. His troubled relationship with Dennis continues to be—well—troubled. Wes dreams of Claire. He fantasizes about being able to play music again. He’s stuck until Scott arrives.
Scott, like much of Black River’s cast, is a complex, damaged character. He’s young and lives alone with his mother. Scott’s father is locked away in prison. Other boys in Black River know about Scott’s situation, so, of course, they tease him. They make the boy’s life his hell. Wes immediately takes a liking to Scott, although he doesn’t completely trust him. Scott, likewise, enjoys Wes. Together, they bond over the fiddle. Wes teaches Scott to play, and Scott becomes consumed by the transportive power of the music. Hulse writes, “But Scott was going to have his own way of playing it, and it would be worthy. They played together for almost two hours—two hours for a single melody line, not even a quarter of the whole tune—and Wes thought about stopping only when he realized the winter-white sun had already sunk below the high horizon of the mountains. He let Scott play it through once more, and he watched his face and saw the way the music transformed this boy, saw that he had been right in coming here with nothing more than a song, that it was enough for Scott as it had been enough for him. Saw that he had done something good.” Scott becomes Wes’ means of living in the present. If Wes can’t make the sounds he once made, he can help Scott make them. He can help the boy grow, undamaged and free of danger.
Hulse quickly reminds us that a fragile life is never that easy to repair. Grief comes again, and Wes must learn to live for himself—for his future. Death appears. The past resurfaces yet again. After the hearing, Wes has to accept his reality, too. Hulse reminds us that life happens, even if it is not the life we want or think we deserve.
Black River is the kind of novel that readers don’t forget. Hulse has crafted something that is emotive and haunting. She’s given us characters that are impossible to shake. The world inside Black River is one that we all know. We can feel it. We can see it. We can even hear it. This is an accomplished Western novel that should signal the arrival of a major literary talent.