Reviewer Tom Pope: Tom is a writing teacher and fiction coach who strives to spark the imagination. As a teacher, he works with tutoring services to help students organize essays and understand literary elements like the point of view. As a fiction coach, he aids authors to develop characters, brainstorm conflict pacing and design worldbuilding.
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Author: Chris Cander
Community Presses Down on the Person
Ever notice the difference between seaside cities and those in the interior of the country? A community can be framed by its geography and social environment.
While Whisper Hollow pulls the readers’ emotional strings to follow six characters from a mining town in West Virginia, the book also pushes the reader deep into a mineshaft away from new thinking and social acceptance. The mine is a character. Readers hear the frustration from a key character at one point that, “The mine is us.”
The depths of the mine forming the mindset of the community can even be seen in the town’s name of Verra and the small valley called Whisper Hollow where the church lay. One is deep into the earth while another opens up to the sky. Yet those energies of seeking the sky could be hindered by the church’s standing on rigid traditions that make people whisper instead of laugh.
On the surface, Cander’s novel is a coming of age, love story, and psychological thriller thrown into one. Myrthen grows up repressing her part in a twin sister’s accident. Marries John despite having no connection with the person. John’s childhood love of Alta is ignored until much later. Alta marries Walter, a character who stirs her as much as weeds in a garden. Years later, Lidia marries Danny only to cover up a rape from a relative.
The lives are changed by a mine explosion that affects Lidia in the 1960s even though the disaster happened in the 1950s. Cander thrusts the reader into a community where the very existence of the mine controls people’s lives. The mine rules like an oppressive dictator through economic, ideological, and social forces.
The economy of the community stops a character’s quest of fulfillment. John yearns for life away from the town as much as George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life. But John feels the economic gravity of the mine where a job will give him money. He couldn’t make money as an artist in a large city…could he? Alta gave up her desire to paint because, “in these days one could not be alone.” The economic necessary favored her marriage with Walter and his strength to work in the mine. He even won a prize for Alta in the fair. The prize was a symbol of economic gain.
Cander shows the quest for ideology in the town and how that arises from the structure of the mine. While religion comes in many forms, the mining town’s form set up barriers that stopped people from thinking of options. John’s lovemaking mistake with Myrthen led to only one end result. He had to marry her. Thinking otherwise would have countered the religious force. Myrthen’s guilt drove her deeper into a well of torment that gave her only one option. She would have to devote herself to God. Years later Lidia’s rape and growing child forces her to marry to Danny to avoid embarrassment. Ideas of moving away, having an abortion, or seeing past flaws as temporary could not be allowed. The enclosed ideological force came from the depths of a mine that held people in a vice of ground and away from the open air.
Which leads to Cander’s social forces being a force in the community. John’s cabin in the woods, close but apart from the mine, existed in an open air acceptance that allowed both John and Alta to renew their love years later despite their marriage to other people. John’s growing asparagus, where the tips point to the open air, also shows a defiance of the town’s social structure. The cabin enjoys a renewed creativity because of its distance from the town. Meanwhile, the acceptance of Lidia’s son, Gabriel, is threatened because Lidia and Gabriel live within the town. Gabriel, a bright four year-old, could be a genius. But that threatens the community’s sense of normal. Myrthen feels threatened by that cabin in the woods because of her tie to a narrow social norm that Lidia and Gabriel seem to defy.
Cander may not have intended the symbolism of Whisper Hollow to follow how the environment helps or traps a person. Yet the forces exist. Just as the train in Anna Karenina embodies change, pulling the characters from the past into a new Russia, the train in Whisper Hollow blasts the leaving horn signal to passengers that change will occur once the train departs.
John stood on the train station to leave for World War II, a change that would show him new ways to think and develop the strength to deal with Myrthen. He exchanged the mantrip of the mine for the locomotive. The mantrip carried miners deep into the earth the way a train transports people. But the mantrip held the men onto a set course without seeing the outside world from the windows in the train.
The train brings a cosmopolitan Maggie to a young Alta, offering the wonders of leaving the town and finding new ways of thinking in far away cities. The train presents an older Alta with the chance to leave her town behind if she will take it.
Cander could have left the story as a crime mystery because she uses psychology to toss around the psyches of people so readers don’t know who set a massive explosion. But the larger story may be the way the community becomes formed by the geography, economics, and social forces that push people. Imagine what would the town look like if the character said, “We are the meadows,” instead of “We are the mine.”