Wes and Claire Carver have been living in Spokane since they left Black River, Montana, 30 years before. But when Claire realizes she is dying from cancer, she asks Wes to take her home to Black River. She also asks him to play to her, which he cannot do, because his fingers were broken years before.
Although Wes plans to take her the day after Claire’s request, she dies during the night. So, Wes prepares to return her ashes to Black River.
Wes has not been there nor seen his stepson Dennis since he and Claire left, although Claire has been back to see her son. Their leaving was after a horrendous series of events. First, there was a riot in the prison where Wes worked. He was held prisoner by a convict, Bobby Williams, for more than a day, and tortured, his fingers ruined. Later, in an argument with teenage Dennis, Dennis pulled a gun on him. That was when he demanded that Claire choose between him and Dennis.
Added to his grief and the difficulties of seeing Dennis again, Wes has heard that Bobby Williams is up for parole. Williams claims to have found God and to be a different person than he was when he held Wes captive. Wes doesn’t believe that people can change. In fact, his beliefs go farther than that, the source of the problems between him and his stepson. Dennis’ father was a criminal, and Wes has always watched for criminal tendencies in Dennis. Finally, Williams robbed Wes of one thing, his gift as a talented fiddler, that made him believe true faith was possible.
Like the modern Western novels of Kent Haruf, which inspired this one, Black River is a quiet story about ordinary people. Although Hulse is not Haruf’s equal as a stylist, she shows herself as an accomplished storyteller.