Hulse debuts with a stark, tender tale about one man’s quest for faith and forgiveness.
The initial question is whether Wes Carver can forgive Bobby Williams, the inmate who tortured him during a prison riot that left two of his fellow corrections officers dead. He gets a letter informing him Williams is up for parole just days before his beloved wife, Claire, dies of leukemia, so Wes is in shaky condition when he returns to Black River, Montana, site of the prison and home to his stepson, Dennis. It’s been 20 years since the riot, 18 since Wes and Claire moved to Spokane, leaving behind her 16-year-old son after a violent altercation between the two men. Hulse unpacks this back story slowly, reproducing the way past traumas shape the present. We grow to realize that Wes too needs forgiveness: for forcing Claire to choose between him and Dennis; for the silent stoicism that shut out even his wife; for the rigid, judgmental morality that keeps him away from the funeral of a troubled teen he befriends in Black River while waiting for the parole hearing. This last act prompts another angry break with Dennis, who has his own traumas to deal with. Wes is a hard man, yet we empathize with him because Hulse quietly reveals two defining, crippling absences. When Williams broke Wes’ fingers one by one, Wes lost his ability to play the fiddle, the great joy of a life haunted by his father’s suicide. Religion is no consolation; though Wes regularly attends church and says grace at meals, he struggles to truly believe—and is enraged that Williams claims to have found God. By making Wes’ suffering so palpable, Hulse makes it even more moving when, in the novel’s final pages, he achieves something he’s been seeking for a very long time: grace.
Profound issues addressed with a delicate touch and folded into a strong story populated by wrenchingly human characters: impressive work from a gifted young artist.