It’s not chick lit.
Sarah Hulse’s novel “Black River” is the furthest thing from chick lit possible. This lean, taut debut book tells the story of Wes, a 60-year-old former prison guard from Montana who returns to his hometown after his wife’s death.
Ostensibly, Wes Carver is in Black River to testify at the parole hearing of Bobby Williams, who held Carver hostage and tortured him during a prison riot 20 years earlier. Really, he’s there to put his wife to rest, to try to patch things up with the stepson he left behind and to deal with the injuries sustained during the riot – mental and physical.
On the surface, Wes is a stereotypical Western man. Think Gary Cooper in “High Noon” – straight-laced and stoic. For Wes, though, his need to always do the right thing causes in him a rigidity that alienates him from the people around him.
“I like writing characters who I think for the most part are good, decent people, but at odds with one another,” said Hulse, 30. “I wanted to set some people like that against one another.”
The Western Montana town of Black River is fictional. The old prison where Wes worked, however, is modeled after the Old Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge (which, like the one in the book, is now a museum). “I remember when I was living in Montana reading about a real prison riot that had happened in Deer Lodge in the 1950s,” Hulse said. “Something about it was interesting. I’ve always been interested in these big events and what happens afterward.”
A big part of the riot’s aftermath for Wes is the loss of his music. Wes is a fiddle player, an exceptional one. It’s music that brings joy to his life. After that outlet is taken from him, he struggles to find his way in the world.
Unlike Wes, Hulse was not a fiddle player; she played viola – not very well, she says – as a kid.
“I thought maybe I should take a few lessons and get a feel for it, just enough to write about it. Then it turns out I really liked it. So I bought a fiddle.”
She studied with well-known Eugene fiddler Chip Cohen, and patterned scenes of Wes teaching the fiddle to others after her own experiences learning the instrument.
“The lessons were totally by ear,” she said. “That was how I learned.”
She has no plans to record the companion “Black River” album and sell it on her book tour, she said with a laugh, but she intends to keep playing. “Black River,” which was released Tuesday, has drawn a lot of attention nationally. The American Booksellers Association’s IndieBound program has named the book to its Indie Next list for February. Amazon.com put it on its Best of the Month list for January. In its starred review, Publishers Weekly noted, “From the bluegrass theme to the Western rural setting, Hulse handles (Wes’) story like a pro.” In another starred review, Kirkus called the book “impressive work from a gifted young artist.”
“You write a book, you make it the best that you can. I’m really proud of how it turned out,” Hulse said. “It’s been really amazing to have that kind of attention, but it’s all kind of icing on the cake.”
Hulse grew up an avid reader, surrounded by books. Makes sense. Her mom, Lisa Lishner, is retired after a long career as an English teacher at Glover Middle School. Her dad, Gil Hulse, is a retired deputy sports editor for The Spokesman-Review.
She has called Spokane home since she was 6 years old. After graduating from St. George’s School in 2002, Hulse did a semester at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. That wasn’t the right fit, so she headed back west, to the University of Montana, and graduated with an English degree. She taught high school in Moscow, Idaho, for a year before enrolling at the University of Oregon to pursue a master’s degree in fine arts. The idea was to write a novel during grad school – and “Black River” is the result.
A fellowship at the University of Wisconsin in Madison gave her a year to polish the book, which she sold to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in June 2013. She has been back in Spokane about 18 months, living with her dad as she works on the second book, due to the publisher next year.
“There’s a joke in my family,” she said, “that I’m one of the few people who moves back in with her parents because she found professional success.”