YEAR OF PLENTY: Hollars’ Highly Personal Memoir Spotlights Grief

‘There’s a time and place to write a highly personal book,’ E.C. author says

Tom Giffey |

'A HIGHLY PERSONAL BOOK.' Eau Claire writer B.J. Hollars explores grief in his latest book, a memoir. (Photo by Steve Dayton)

The latest book by prolific Eau Claire author B.J. Hollars is undoubtedly his most personal. It may also be his most universal. Hollars, a professor of English at UW-Eau Claire, has written more than a dozen books, most of them nonfiction works tackling everything from the Civil Rights movement to paranormal phenomenon to John F. Kennedy.

Year of Plenty: A Family’s Season of Grief, published in May by the University of Wisconsin Press, veers deeply into personal territory, chronicling how the final illness and death of a loved one impacted his young family. In late 2020, the family learned that Hollars’ father-in-law, Steve Ball, had stage four lung cancer. Suddenly, there was something more pressing than a worldwide pandemic: the impending loss of a father, a grandfather, and a father-in-law. Through Hollars’ fluent and thoughtful prose – as well as snippets of interviews with his wife, Meredith, and the family’s children – the book chronicles the months that followed.

“There’s a time and place to write a highly personal book and this felt like the time and this felt like the book,” Hollars explained in a recent interview.

Yet he didn’t exactly set out to write a memoir. “It was kind of a step-by-step process,” he said. “When we were living this moment, there was no book in sight.” However, always the writer, Hollars found himself taking notes, recording voice memos, and snapping photos. “I think when you see there’s a finite amount of time with someone, you want to hold onto whatever anchor you can,” he explained.

After about a year of curating these disparate memories, he said, “It occurred to me that maybe there’s enough here that would be valuable to people beyond my family.”

There’s a time and place to write a highly personal book and this felt like the time and this felt like the book.



And there certainly is enough. For the purposes of full disclosure, I know Hollars and his family personally. But I can’t help but think that the raw, revelatory nature of Year of Plenty will make many more readers feel that they know him as well. More importantly, they’ll find echoes of their own grief and joy in the book’s pages. Amid the highly personal and often melancholy memories – cross-country trips to absorb as much time as possible, final visits to the beach and the ballgame with grandpa, an attempt to create a final memorial at a beloved park – Hollars offers sparks of philosophy that illuminate the human condition amid grief. As he writes after sharing an anecdote of his daughter getting lost – then found – at  that ballgame, “Bad things defy simple explanations. They either happen or they don’t. And when they don’t, we don’t even know that we’ve been spared.”

Because bad things are ultimately inevitable, Hollars suggests, we just appreciate the good things when we find them. He points to the words of poet Amy Fleury, which he chose as the book’s epigraph, “There was trouble all around and everywhere little mercies.”

Yet the lessons here aren’t as simplistic as “carpe diem.” Grief is painful, complicated, and personal, and in the latter part of the book Hollars finds his instinct to fix problems at odds with his wife’s need to grieve in her own way. “Grief, for me, means writing the guide and making the map,” he writes, “only to learn that the guide and the map don’t work for anyone but you.”

Writing about his own marriage was the most difficult part of creating the book, Hollars acknowledged. “Ultimately, these sorts of experiences did make us stronger, certainly now,” he said. “But when you’re in it, it’s so hard because … all I want to do is help and fix it, but I don't have a cure for cancer.”

Ultimately, life continues for the grieving, and Hollars has found that when he reads from the book in public, audience members are inspired to tell him about the loved ones they’ve lost and the memories they cherish.

For Hollars and his family, those are memories of a humble man who loved to fish, play handball, and mingle with friends at the coffee shop he owned.

“He was not the kind of person who would ever think his life was deserving of a memoir or any particular attention,” Hollars said of his father-in-law. “I think that’s what I really admired about him. He was never looking for the spotlight – ever – and so I think that’s more reason to try to provide some spotlight, not only to him but to the larger experience that he helped represent.”

Year of Plenty: A Family’s Season of Grief, by B.J. Hollars, was published in May by the University of Wisconsin Press. It’s available at many online and brick-and-mortar retailers, including The Local Store, 205 N. Dewey St., Eau Claire. Learn more about the author at Hollars will take part in a conversation about Year of Plenty at 6:15pm Thursday, July 16, at Dotters Books, 307 S. Barstow St., Eau Claire.