A multigenerational story set in a West Virginia coal mining town, "Whisper Hollow" is so vivid a tale of twisted devotion, true love and tragedy that you will emerge from it wiping coal dust from your eyes and squinting thankfully into the sunlight.
Chris Cander's novel begins in 1916 with an immigrant couple and their twin daughters making a go of it in West Virginia. In the tragic wake of her sister's death, Myrthen grows up spiritually neurotic. Eventually forced to marry a man she does not love, this surviving twin spends her days tending her sister's grave, playing the church organ, and eavesdropping on confessions at the local church. Meanwhile, across town the barefoot Alta Krol grows up enthralled by her Aunt Maggie, an elegant, worldly woman who, occasionally visiting from New York, hints at a better life elsewhere.
But for as much as Alta dreams of escaping her coal mining town and Myrthen fantasizes about fleeing society in general, time, inertia, even the rules of the Catholic church win out and neither woman is able to leave. Alta marries, has a son, becomes a responsible wife. Myrthen dedicates herself to annulling her marriage and joining the Carmelites.
Along the way, both women find outlets for their desires — Alta in John (Myrthen's husband) and Myrthen in a kind of insular hatred masquerading as piety. When Myrthen overhears her cousin confess a dastardly preoccupation, she uses it to plot the tragedy that anchors the novel.
The story resumes 14 years after that disaster with Lydia who, married to her high school sweetheart, bears a son, Gabriel, a child of uncommon calm and possibly prophetic powers. When Lydia meets Alta (older now and living alone in the cabin she once shared with her lover), and then Myrthen, the two sides of the mine disaster come together. What ensues is chilling and memorable.
Cander's novel is "The Scarlet Letter" meets "Lady Chatterley's Lover" all taking place in Homer Hickman's Coalwood. You experience Myrthen, veiled in black, bent over her sister's grave, a Hawthorne-esqe character withered like Roger Chillingworth under the weight of her crime. You watch the miners drift home in the dark toward "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." Everyone in this town has a problem, which adds to the stunted pain of the place. But like a flashlight in a mine shaft, there are moments of kindness and forgiveness so beautifully rendered and welcome you'll find yourself screaming: Get out of town! And you'll be grateful when some of them finally do.
Christine Brunkhorst is a local writer and reviewer and an English teacher at St. Thomas Academy.