To Connect Over Shared Stories: Chris Cander’s Whisper Hollow

By Cassandra Neace

When I received my copy of Chris Cander’s WHISPER HOLLOW, I turned it over to read the description on the back. When I saw that the story takes place in West Virginia coal country, my first reaction was to question the title. As someone who spent her summers as a child in those same hills, I can say with certainty that no one says “hollow.” It’s holler. Period.

That one inconsistency put me on guard. Luckily, Cander accounts for it early on, when a recent immigrant reflects on how the local speech differs from the English she studied in school back in Germany: “Even Whisper Hollow…was pronounced in a way that suggested something unpredictable.” That sentence did the trick. It kept me reading.

When I spoke with Cander, I told her about my initial reaction. She laughed. We ended up talking about shared memories of childhoods in West Virginia and the stories that we heard from our relatives. Those stories are reflected throughout WHISPER HOLLOW, both in its chronicle of the daily hardships faced by those who make their living from the mines and in the more dark and unpredictable elements of the story.

The story begins in darkness. A young girl, Ruth, is killed in an accident just before the birthday she shares with her twin, Myrthen. It is an event that has long-lasting repercussions. Much of what happens in the book is driven by Myrthen’s guilt, albeit indirectly. It leads to the death of thirteen miners. Their loss is serious blow to the town, and particularly to Alta, who loses her husband, her son, and the man who she loves in secret. That is not a spoiler, either. It is just the way that Cander works.

Cander explains that she likes to give away a lot right up front. It is not meant to be a book full of surprises, but one that looks at the fallout from an event and examines how people recover. Cander sets this artistic challenge for herself with each work. She focuses on telling a story when something bad has already happened, then works to unpack that event and all of its associated baggage.

The strength of Cander’s storytelling lies in her attention to detail. She spends a great deal of time focusing on the daily life of characters. The reader comes to know them, to understand them and the choices that they make. The characters feel familiar. As I read, I felt as if I were sitting on the front porch of my grandparents’ house listening to them talk about the old days with their brothers and sisters, and in my earliest memories, their mothers. Whisper Hollow could have easily been one of their stories.

I was meant to be interviewing Cander the afternoon we spoke. Instead, she picked my brain about my family’s history and how and where it may have overlapped her own. We talked about the holler my grandparents called home and how time there moves a little slower than in the rest of the world. It was a unique experience for both of us, reader and author, being able to dissect the novel and our experience with it in that way.

My wish is that we will get to do it again sometime, to connect over shared stories. Maybe it will happen while we are both browsing the shelves at Brazos, she with her son in tow. From what I hear, he is a big fan.

Cassandra Neace is a recovering educator, a Book Riot contributor, and an unapologetic binge-reader. Her most recent binge-reads have involved short fiction from across the spectrum, science fiction written by women, and all of the books she read under duress in grad school. She figured they deserved a second chance. When she’s not reading books or writing about them, she works for a local graphic design firm.

Whisper Hollow Cover Image
$17.95
ISBN: 9781590517116
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Other Press (NY) - March 17th, 2015

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