Thursday, January 8, 2015

Black River by S. M. Hulse: Faith Quakes in the High Plains

A wife's dying request is to hear her husband bow, one more time, his tune Black River, the one he had been perfecting for years. Wes holds the violin, unable to play; his shattered, disfigured fingers long ago forgot how to find those sweet notes. The music which had saved him had been taken from him. Has Claire forgotten?

I want to go to Black River, she had asked. Belatedly Wes takes her ashes and goes back to Montana, to the place where they fell in love, the place of the 1992 prison riot that changed his life, to Claire's son who they had left behind at age 16. Where the mountains seemed like the hands of God.

With memory comes fear.

Thirty nine hours held hostage by a sociopath has haunted Wes his entire life and his torturer Williams is up for parole. Williams claims to have found faith and become a different man.

Can people change? Does 'bad blood' go from father to son? Is it enough to be right? Do we 'deserve' God? How do we find faith? Do we deserve forgiveness? What does justice have to do with forgiveness?

Hulse's first novel is a marvel, tackling existential questions through characters so richly imagined and rooted in life it is hard to believe a young woman spun them out of her imagination. The back stories are revealed in their time, woven into the story line and adding to the drama. The final meeting between Wes and Williams includes a surprise twist. The questions raised in the novel will engage you long after you close the book.

I received the ebook through NetGalley in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

To learn more about the author visit:

Black River by S. M. Hulse
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication January 20, 2015
$ 24.00
$3.99 Kindle
To Wes, the violin sang like the human voice. It had been his voice and it brought him as close to God as anything else in his life. He had a gift with the fiddle and had played with a bluegrass  band for nineteen years. His father had loved classical music; his favorite work was the Chaconne from Bach's Partita No. 2 in D Minor and he started each day with listening to it the way some men read the Bible or a devotional. He made Wes his violin in 1966. 

Claire, the agnostic, loved old hymns. She loved her husband's tune which she had named Black River.

Wes tried to bond with his stepson Dennis by teaching him the violin, and later he teaches troubled teen, and natural musician, Scott. 

Music plays a role in the lives of most of the main characters. 

Hulse learned to play as part of her research for the novel as well as studying and listening to the music Wes loved. I can imagine the book made into a movie where music pervades every scene.

Tunes mentioned in the novel (with audio links) include:

Salt Creek (Also known as Salt River)
Mary Morgan
Hop High Ladies (perhaps same as Hop Light Ladies?)
Blackberry Blossom

Addendum Jan 11: Hulse has shared an interview about music related to her book found on Largegearted Boy: Book Notes: 
An quilt made by Claire is on Dennis's childhood bed where Wes sleeps after his return. Claire had made it from red and blue scraps, finishing it when Dennis turned 12. Wes thinks that touching the soft quilt is like touching Claire, the stitches like writing, or scars. She was nimble with the needle, Wes remembers. After the riot Claire quilted only when Wes was away, embarrassed by her deft fingers and knowing what Wes had lost. 


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