Good Books for Book Clubs: Black River by S. M. Hulse

BlackRiverLast week, the LIT book club discussed one of my most favorite books in recent memory, Black River by S. M. Hulse. This is a riveting, heartbreaking, beautifully written story of a man mourning both a wife and a way of life.

Wes Carver was once a passionate musician. His work as a corrections officer paid the bills, but his true love was the fiddle. A prison riot changed all that: Wes had the misfortune to be at work when a group of prisoners broke into the control room, grabbed the keys to the cells, and overtook the jail. Prisoner Bobby Williams took Wes hostage, methodically breaking his fingers and torturing him for hours until help arrived. Years after the event, Wes no longer works at the jail, has problems with daily tasks, and can no longer play the fiddle. The book begins as Wes returns to Black River with the ashes of his recently deceased wife.

Why It’s Good For Book Groups

Black River is a contemporary western with a distinctly literary feel, rightfully compared to the work of late author Kent Haruf. Like Haruf, Hulse does a beautiful job of writing in a genre many people no longer read and making it both accessible and enjoyable. It should appeal to both men and women, and because it is a dense and layered story, there are a wide variety of themes to discuss and consider. Wes is a challenging character and great to dig into; he’s thoughtful and kind, but can also be cruel and unthinking, a good man adrift in a life that lacks meaning or faith. The writing style makes this a good fit for groups who relish beautiful language and lush landscapes.

Resources We Used

Black River has become a popular book discussion title, so there are lots of resources online. S.M. Hulse has some solid questions on her website, and she’s very responsive on social media. If your club has questions, you might pose them there. She often visits book clubs—something you might consider if you live near Reno. We used online resources like LitLovers for questions, and the always excellent Omnivoracious has an interesting interview with Hulse that we found useful for background information. It was especially interesting to us that this novel was her MFA thesis!

What’s Up Next

LIT likes to read lighter genre titles in the summer, so our next selection is Maybe in Another Life by Taylor Jenkins Reid, a distinctly chick lit novel about a woman in a bar who has to decide between two possible lives. Happy summer, and happy reading!


About the Author:

Liz Kirchhoff is an adult services librarian at the Barrington Area Library in the Chicago suburbs. She is a longtime book reviewer and has read for the American Library Association's Notable Books Council. After her first book came out last year, Liz swore she'd never do that again (even though she probably will). Now she happily reviews books written by others.

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