In a dead-end prison town, a fraught journey home

A first-time novelist follows a quiet Montana man in the wake of grief.

 

“Wesley is one of those Montana men whose mouths hardly move when they speak, for whom words are precious things they are loath to give up,” writes first-time novelist S. M. Hulse in Black River,  a story haunted by loss and violence in a dead-end prison town.

Although the narrative begins from the perspective of Claire, Wes’ wife, at a hospital in Spokane, it quickly shifts: Claire is dying of leukemia. Her last wish is to return to her chosen home in Black River, Montana, where her son still lives. It’s a landscape Hulse describes in gorgeous detail: “The foothills rose abruptly here, as though the earth had suddenly run aground of something much stronger and sturdier and been left with nowhere to go but skyward. Old logging roads crossed the bare slopes like neat surgical scars.”

But Wes, a retired corrections officer, returns without his wife, hoping to reconcile with his stepson, Dennis, the product of a rape that happened shortly before Wes and Claire met. Propelling the plot is a looming parole hearing for the prisoner who tortured Wes during a prison riot 18 years earlier, breaking nine of his fingers, leaving him without the ability to play his beloved fiddle.

The question of forgiveness hovers over Wes, even in his relationship with Dennis. Years earlier, the boy pulled a gun on him during an argument, an incident that prompted the couple’s departure to Spokane, leaving the teenager on his own.

The ostensible reason for Wes’ reappearance in Dennis’ life is the need to dispose of Claire’s remains. Once they have flung her ashes over the valley, old antipathies return, and Dennis wants Wes gone. The stepson and the prisoner, as well as the prison itself, force Wes to confront his true vulnerability.

“What he felt in those days after her death so filled him, so commanded every moment, he knew it was just a hairsbreadth from love itself. Like the same note played an octave apart, at the same time, ringing and resonating together.”

Black River: A Novel
S. M. Hulse
240 pages, softcover: $14.95.
Mariner Books, 2016.