Black River by S. M. Hulse

The state prison in Black River, Montana is easily the largest employer in the town, and the only real opportunity for a localblack river to make a decent living.  As a younger man, Wes Carver had a career as a corrections officer at the prison, and possessed a rare talent with a fiddle.  Twenty years after being tortured in a prison riot, Wes has ruined hands and a wife dying of leukemia.  With his fiddling glory a distant memory, Wes also has to face being a widower at sixty.

Following his wife’s wishes, Wes brings her ashes back to Black River, the town where they spent the earliest years of their marriage.  He is there for another reason – the prisoner that held him hostage during the riot is up for parole.  The man claims to be a born again Christian, but Wes doesn’t buy that, and wants to speak his mind at the parole hearing.

Wes has plenty of things to test his own faith – his beloved wife’s death, the fears of facing someone who brought him actual pain and years of nightmares, and the real life challenge of reconnecting with his thirty-something stepson Dennis, who can barely stand to be in the same room with Wes.

Add to the mix a teenage kid who works for Dennis in his farrier shop.  Scott is an outsider in Black River.  He is only living there with his mom to be closer to his father, who is an inmate at the prison.  The other kids at his high school are pretty nasty to Scott, and he has an attitude.  He also has an aptitude for music, and Wes introduces Scott to the fiddle after seeing him sing at the town’s harvest festival.

As the parole hearing nears, tensions between Wes and Dennis arise along with other shocking news.

Black River is one of the best novels I have read in recent times.  That said, it’s also a heartbreaker, and no, the ending is far from cut and dried.  It’s not a touchy-feely book.  There are occasionally tender moments, as only its hard unforgiving types can express.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

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