Saturday, April 4, 2015

"Black River"

S. M. Hulse received her MFA from the University of Oregon and was a fiction fellow at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Her stories have appeared in Willow Springs, Witness, and Salamander. A horsewoman and fiddler, she has spent time in Washington, Montana, Idaho, and Oregon.

Hulse applied the Page 69 Test to her new novel, Black River, and reported the following:
Twenty years ago, corrections officer and fiddler Wes Carver was held hostage during a prison riot that left him physically and emotionally shattered. Now, sixty years old and a recent widower, Wes returns to Black River, the remote Montana town that is home to the state penitentiary and the men who guard its inmates. There, Wes must contend with Dennis, his volatile stepson; Scott, a promising young musician whose anger toward his incarcerated father threatens to consume him; and Bobby Williams, his former captor whose supposed religious conversion forces Wes to face his own struggles with faith.

Page 69 appears during one of four chapters in Black River told from the point of view of Wes’s wife, Claire. Though she dies at the beginning of the novel, her voice returns throughout the book, often to recall past events. In this scene, she watches as her husband tries—and fails—to play his beloved fiddle for the first time after having his hands seriously injured during the prison riot:
Wesley, she says.

He ignores her. His eyes are on his strings now, his bow, his fingers that won’t obey.


The bow sawing desperately, the motion hardly intentional anymore, nearly a seizure. A sound to set your teeth on edge.

Wesley, please.

He makes an awful sort of pained sound deep in his throat, and Claire reaches forward and curls her hand over the scroll of his fiddle and pulls it down, away, and finally he relinquishes its weight to her and quits. Half drops and half throws his bow to the floor. It clatters dully on the hardwood, a blunt coda to his ruined song.
While this scene takes place two decades before most of the events in the novel, it gets right to the heart of Wes’s struggles. His music meant the world to him: it helped him reconnect with his humanity after a day working inside the prison; it brought him together with his wife; it even helped him move toward faith in God. When he lost his ability to play, his entire world became bleaker and less certain, and the full impact of that loss comes to a head twenty years later in the pages of Black River.
Visit S. M. Hulse's website.

--Marshal Zeringue