The Chippewa River runs southwest through Wisconsin for approximately 183 miles. It runs through a place that somehow escaped the scoop and scour of glaciers, an area known as The Driftless, and through the town of Eau Claire, where writer BJ Hollars makes his home. It runs through every page of Hollars’ strange book, Dispatches from the Drownings, sweeping people from its banks, devouring them in winter, snatching them through its cracked, half-frozen ice, pinning bodies under logs, tipping them from boats, holding them under its smooth, swift surface until their breath is gone, keeping them for months on end, sometimes surrendering their sodden shoes or fishing poles, baby carriages and clown suits, and sometimes, eventually, the bodies themselves.
BJ Hollars’ Dispatches from the Drownings: Reporting the Fiction of Nonfiction is a compendium of 100 stories of drownings and near drownings that may or may not have occurred in the Chippewa River between the years 1875 and 1922. The stories are accompanied by photographs by Charles Van Schaick, a studio photographer in Black River Falls, Wisconsin (an hour southeast of Eau Claire) during the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Briefly, let me reveal the subjective viewpoint behind the voice of The Book Reviewer. I spent my childhood in a small Wisconsin town. I studied photography in college. History is often my writing muse (Oh ice cutters! Oh glass plate negatives! Oh stories lurking in the dusty antique shop!) And I’m acutely interested in the blurring of fiction and nonfiction. Dispatches from the Drownings is a book for me. It arrived in my mailbox on late summer day, and I tore off the wrappings to get a good look at its glossy black cover. An underwater scene: bubbles like jellyfish, like tiny flying saucers, rising to the surface through inky, malevolent water. A quick survey of the pages: early 20th century studio photographs of toddlers in plywood boats, boys in woolen knickers and ruffled blouses, a man with his legs in braces, so many painted backdrops. Page after page with morbid headlines: “Died While Bathing,” “Suicide at Appleton,” “Jumps from Railway Bridge into Water,” and “Two More Slip Beneath the Ice, Drown.”
Hollars’ book is in conversation with Michael Lesy’s Wisconsin Death Trip, both a book and a film that tells a macabre history of Wisconsin, its many episodes accumulating to create a place of madness and violence where children become mass murderers, and a woman addicted to the sound of breaking glass compulsively bashes windows. Hollars’ Wisconsin is no less macabre, but the main aggressor in this text is the river itself—albeit aided by the writer and the passage of time, distorters and inventors of history.
In his introduction, Hollars, an assistant professor of creative writing, professes that he tells students of nonfiction writing that “most facts—even those offered neutrally—are about 75 percent true and 25 percent false,” a fact—dare I use the word?—that Hollars attributes to writers’ decisions of inclusion and exclusion, the passage of time (which distorts memory and accuracy), and the necessity of conjecture to create or complete a narrative. In his book, Hollars takes this ratio of truth to fiction further: he states that 75 of the 100 stories are based on actual newspaper accounts of drownings, while 25 of them are completely invented. Hollars has gone as far as writing false bibliographic entries to complete the ruse, but he confesses this from the outset. Indeed, this blurring of fiction and nonfiction is the heart of the book, its central concept and its game. There is no way for a reader to discern which of the 25 stories are invented. Hollars wrote every one, whether from research or imagination, so the voice is consistent throughout: an approximation of a turn-of-the-century reporter’s voice, a bit flat, occasionally punning, always infused with dark humor. Yet I could not resist trying to guess which of the stories were invented. Surely the “Halloween Scare Nearly Takes Lives of Three,” is Hollars’ own? It matches too neatly with the photograph on the opposite page, a photo of three adults in costume, a hobo, clown, and chambermaid (but wait! That’s not a chambermaid outfit. What is it? Little Bo Peep?) Certainly Hollars invented the unidentified “giant, gilled snake” that washed ashore in 1896? But then, this one is too obviously fictional—it must be true. I began to feel a bit like Wallace Shawn’s character in The Princess Bride, trying to guess which goblet holds the poison. I imagined the mind of the author imagining his conception of his reader’s mind, and so on. You will never know, the book taunts, and even as I accepted this, allowing the stories to wash over me, drowning after drowning, I kept wondering which ones were more true than invented, which more invented than true.
Charles Van Schaick’s photographs mirror Hollars’ game. The scenes are obviously fabricated, complete with painted trompe l’oeil backdrops of hazy landscapes, lily pads, miniature boats, costumes, props, and careful poses. No one is trying to trick the viewer into believing these are natural scenes or candid portraits. Yet, when Hollars pairs the story titled “Drowning of a Dog Rouses Pity Here” with a photograph of a black dog with shiny fur, despite all logic, it’s difficult not to link the dog in the photo with the dog in the story. Hollars' book capitalizes and comments upon the brain's tendency to work associatively, to fill in blanks, to create a shape where there are only separate points of light, to build a plotted story from juxtaposition of image and text.
After reading a number of dispatches, the stories seemed to drift past me, one after another, and I simply watched them go, sometimes cringing, sometimes laughing, and all too soon turning the page. Hollars’ book is rich with the magic dust of history, and full of strange characters, accidents, and miracles. As promised, it reminded me to question the value of facts. If—due in part to our inescapable subjectivity, the incompleteness of our knowledge, and our irrepressible imaginations—even meticulously researched nonfiction is always a little bit fiction, what (or who) can I trust? And how can I make meaning of history, of events that really happened? I can only do my best, but I trust a narrator like Hollars who confesses his invention, who admits his greatest truth is that he can’t quite tell a story straight.