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    Salvaging Beauty from the Ruins

    Danielle Chapman’s Holler tells a story that in a way belongs to all of us.

    By Elizabeth Genovise

    May 28, 2024
    • Susan Stephens

      Well done Elizabeth, well done!

    In the preface to her memoir, Holler, Danielle Chapman writes, “When you set out to write to the people, or to rail against those people, they become the whetstone for your words, and they are always less exacting than the crags of your own consciousness.” It is with this brutal honesty that Chapman, a daughter of Tennessee who now teaches creative writing at Yale, mines the formative years of her life. With her we ride an emotional roller coaster where we love, then hate, then love again the souls who have left deep imprints on her identity: a father lost to the sea when she was young; a mother determined to keep living for Chapman’s sake but captive to the past; a military grandfather who seems emblematic of outdated values but turns out to be more progressive and empathetic than anyone would have guessed; family friends who appear to be walking stereotypes of the Old South and blind military devotion but who are as complex as anyone else with a traumatic history and contradictory impulses.

    There are neither angels nor demons here; there is neither total acceptance nor outright condemnation. While many of these memories bring Chapman shame, grief, and doubt, she remains confident of their value. “I believe in my memories,” she tells us, “as if they were articles of faith; that they rivet me for a reason; that, if tested rigorously enough, they will yield some meaning bigger than themselves, and maybe even the truth.” She writes in the spirit of The Things They Carried, a novel that receives attention in the memoir.

    Chapman’s richly lyrical yet incisive voice never falters. “If we couldn’t contain our memories, I would make containers for the flood,” she asserts, reflecting on the years immediately following her father’s tragic death. Later she notes, “It’s in the moment between seeing the shape of something and discovering what it actually is that metaphor and prophecies are born.” The essence of the memoir is contained in a line describing an emotionally fraught conversation between Chapman and another woman: “The mixed emotions of that moment captured the clash-and-chimes sound of the word ‘reconciliation,’ the sound of violence passing through grief into fragile understanding.” This is what the memoir achieves: an angle of repose, an integration of opposites, an acceptance of paradox. Just as those who loved her contained both shadow and light, so Chapman herself is rich with contradictions. She tells a story that in a way belongs to all of us. We are simultaneously unforgivable and worthy of the deepest compassion. We are failures, and yet our efforts sometimes salvage beauty from the ruins.

    Near the memoir’s conclusion, Chapman describes a family of otters creating a raft of their own bodies in an effort to navigate a flood. She makes no comment on the image, but perhaps with it she offers a solution to our national angst: Reach for one another. Recognize that we are all battling the same floods, that, as Solzhenitsyn once said, the line between good and evil runs right through the heart of every person.

    Contributed By ElizabethGenovise Elizabeth Genovise

    Elizabeth Genovise is an O. Henry Prize recipient and the author of several short story collections.

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