Verra, West Virginia is a small town comprised mostly of first- and second-generation immigrants. Many of the town’s inhabitants work hard for meager wages, and a lot of sons follow in in their father’s footsteps and become coal miners. Spanning from 1916 to 1969, Whisper Hollow follows the lives of two women who have lived in the town all their lives and whose fates are intertwined.
At the beginning of the book, Myrthen Bergmann’s twin sister dies in an accident. Myrthen blames herself and spends the rest of her life in mourning. She devotes her life to Catholicism, and when she finds what nuns are, her sole goal in life is to enter the sisterhood as soon as she’s able to. Meanwhile, Alta Krol daydreams of becoming an artist and seeing the world. When her glamorous aunt and uncle come for a visit from New York City, Alta can’t stop thinking of what life must be like outside Verra. But since her mother died young, Alta is now the one in charge of taking care of her brothers and her father. Both women are pushed into marriage under very different circumstances, but while Alta reluctantly accepts her fate, Myrthen makes a number of decisions that wreak havoc on Alta’s life.
Decades later, after the damage has been done, a newlywed teenager named Lidia gives birth to a baby named Gabriel. He seems wise beyond his years, and as he gets older, it begins to unsettle people around town. Some begin to believe the toddler has links to “the beyond.” It makes certain people uneasy because of dark secrets surrounding an event that happened in Verra years ago. If Gabriel does actually know things, he might start to divulge the details about what really happened.
This is a really good book that kept making me tear up. Its strength lies in its first half, which has a lovely rhythm as it builds to the climax. Myrthen makes a great antagonist; I spent most of Part 1 going, “Damn you, woman! YOU ARE A BAD PERSON!” I kept feeling as if Myrthen had hints of Cathy Ames from East of Eden — I say “hints” because ain’t no one as twisted as Cathy Ames! — mixed with pieces of Jennifer Haigh’s Baker Towers. Even though I kept rooting (and crying) for Alta, I also kept hoping Myrthen would go even further in her overall general terribleness!
The book lost some of its momentum for me early in Part 2 when Lidia’s story was introduced (mostly because it jumps ahead several years and I had to get reoriented), but it quickly recovers its rhythm; I actually read the last 250 pages or so in a day. If you’re a fan of multigenerational dramas that are filled with all kinds of destructive secrets, you’ll want to pick this one up.
Whisper Hollow was released in March 2015 by Other Press.