Review of ‘Whisper Hollow’
Chris Cander’s new novel offers readers a telling portrait of life in a small Southern mining town.
“Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known,” writes Chris Cander, quoting Luke 12:2 in the beginning of her novel Whisper Hollow. It’s a scripture reference that comes to fruition in the lives of her characters who harbor deeply buried secrets. Through the intertwined and complex stories of three very different women spanning two generations, Cander explores what happens when people are forced to contend with their most intimate truths.
Verra — an immigrant coal mining community tucked away in a West Virginia hollow — becomes a unique setting and grounding point for this novel that spans 50 years. The town itself seems to harbor almost as many secrets as the main characters. The title of the book comes from the small valley across the creek from Verra, home to the Catholic church, where Cander creates a haunted setting that foreshadows the fates of her characters.
“… it was pronounced in a way that suggested something irreconcilable; they called it ‘Whisper Holler.’ She didn’t know if it was the lax and tense vowels and the strange conjugations that made her queasy, or the undeniable undercurrent and swell beneath her apron,” writes Cander, describing a German immigrant’s feelings about her new home in West Virginia.
The first half of the novel alternates between the stories of Myrthen Bergmann and Alta Krol. In 1916, Myrthen is playing tug-of-war over a doll with her twin sister, Ruth. When Myrthen suddenly lets go, her sister falls to her death. The tragic accident sends Myrthen on a guilt-ridden quest for peace through a twisted life dedicated to God and the church. Alta wants to be an artist and to see and experience the world, but caring for her widowed father and siblings keeps her at home.
Alta’s younger brother talks her into a blind date with Walter Pulaski, a miner and a “big, strong, squared-off, mostly quiet” man. It’s not long before Alta marries him. After all, “theirs was a good match between decent people in indecent times.” However, Alta loves John Esposito unbeknownst to anyone, including John. Yet, “Nobody could afford to be alone. Nobody wanted to be.”
When John finally expresses an interest in Alta, he is too late for she is already engaged. He turns his interest back to Myrthen, who has been fending off his advances for quite some time. After a momentary lapse in judgment, Myrthen is forced to marry the man Alta loves. The weddings occur on the same day and seal the two women’s unwanted fates.
Thirty-four years later, Myrthen is unable to reconcile her relationship with God with her role as a wife and becomes desperate for a divorce. Meanwhile, Alta is unable to tear herself away from her passionate love affair with John, despite having a husband and son of her own. Desperate for a life in which she is married only to God, Myrthen takes drastic measures to ensure the end of her marriage that the church refuses to grant. The result is a tragic disaster that marks the town forever and turns Alta’s world upside down.
Fast forward 14 years to 1964, we meet Lidia, a teenaged girl who carries a shameful secret in the form of her son Gabriel. When Gabriel comes across Alta’s cabin in the woods, it marks the start of a deep friendship between Lidia and Alta. The mother and son bring vibrant life back into Alta’s lonely cabin, but when Gabriel begins to tell eerily prophetic stories that hint at Verra’s buried past, the townspeople suspect he may harbor an evil spirit. Myrthen becomes obsessed with the boy and his salvation, and Alta once again finds herself entangled with her former rival. As the women’s stories once again intertwine, each one is forced to confront the secrets they have buried as deep as the coal mine their town revolves around.