The small town is a familiar setting of American literature, an opportunistic scene for individualized epics to be constructed from the realistic and the ordinary. Set in a small mining town in the mountains of West Virginia, Whisper Hollow is a novel that uncovers such a premise by going just deep enough to provide substance. It is a story where people are formed by the intricacies of relationships, familial and otherwise, and bound by the solidity of place. As such, Whisper Hollow entertainingly presents how a community can span generations and transcend the limits of time.
The town of Whisper Hollow and the characters that comprise it are brought together by their roles in the book’s central tragedy: a mining collapse. This event divides the novel into its two major parts: the first, which details mingling causalities preceding the mining disaster; the second, which
14 years later details consequences of the mining collapse. Many characters traverse these pages, but the two most essential are Alta and Myrthen, two girls whose childhood and early adult lives are chronicled in the book’s first half. Alta and Myrthen’s lives intersect only briefly, yet their behavior and decisions inextricably affect each other--most notably in their romantic entanglements, as missed romantic connections are integral to the plot. Alta is a passionate dreamer while Myrthen, spurred by guilt from a childhood tragedy, is a zealot bordering on madness. When both women end up in an ill-fitted marriage, the novel barely sidesteps sentimental clichés with the somewhat standard technique of abrupt character deaths and other various surprises.
Fortunately, Cander nevertheless manages to entertain with a rapidly developing story. The novel often skips large gaps of time as the narrative progresses, and the reader can only imagine the many missing details of Alta and Myrthen’s lives. This technique may initially seem formulaic, but it succeeds by sensing predictability so that if readers decipher what will happen--which at times is not hard to do--it becomes forgivable in that the reader experiences the flatness of existence, the day-to-day grind that is barely notable and hardly memorable, only marginally. These details become fascinating only when not told, as Cander does here, teasing us with brief, descriptive interactions that are portraits of memorable moments that would likely be lost with too much information. Readers are left with a desire for more stories from these romantic interludes, and the novel’s timing progresses at just the right pace.
In the novel’s second part, the older Alta and Myrthen are no longer the primary characters, yet they are still essential to the plot that now focuses on a younger couple, Lidia and Danny. This marriage is a mostly happy one, a relationship that was denied the two older women, complicated by Lidia’s son Gabriel and his eerie awareness of the town’s individuals and their history. The ambiguity surrounding Gabriel’s abilities muddles the distinction between coincidence and supernatural, just as the novel muddles the distinctions between that which is meant to happen (fate) and that which we create through our actions. The uncertainty of which is more responsible, when taken with Myrthen’s Christian zealotry, may very well be commentary on the role of religion. Regardless, Gabriel is essentially a child of the town, a consequence of the many generations and their actions that have formed this environment.
Thus, Whisper Hollow is a place that possesses an almost magical quality due to how the actions of its residents are so intertwined with events that seem cosmic. Such a theme may cause readers to think of that other famous hollow of American literature, where sleepy, soporific lives were disrupted by actions of superstitious citizens. Cander’s imagery, though, is unique and powerful when describing the interaction between place and characters, like that of the miners leaving work and going “down the hill toward their waiting wives and sleeping children, work clothes balled into rolls under their arms, swinging empty dinner buckets. Nothing visible but the fiery ends of their cigarettes burning like red stars in the night” (182). Such scenes persist in readers’ imaginations long after they finish reading. The many descriptive passages draw readers into the story, just as the miners are led into the ground and the characters are inevitably drawn to the town enclosed between the mountains. That location is what consistently binds the different generations, for every character
who plans to leave either stays or returns. There is always a sense of needing to leave that is never quite fulfilled, which all the more enforces the character’s strong emotional attachments to the past and reveals the danger of constant reflection on decisions.
This portrayal of the temptation of history is one of the greatest successes of Whisper Hollow. The novel conveys the fragility of human experience through the fragmentation caused by the passage of time. Laughter, sadness, frustration, and love are shouted repeatedly into the void of history, as time dictates they must be, but the writing elegantly captures how (for better or worse) individual voices form a network of all-consuming human emotion and experience. Whisper Hollow suggests that individual stories do not blend into a cacophonous din, rather they persist through fine whispers of memory that have the potential to create understanding and, ultimately, acceptance of circumstances whether we control them or not.