The underground mine fires ravaging Pennsylvania coal country have forced eleven-year-old Brigid Howley and her family to seek refuge with her estranged grandparents. Tragedy is no stranger to the Howleys, a proud Irish-American clan that takes strange pleasure in the “curse” laid upon them generations earlier. The weight of this legacy rests heavily on a new generation, when Brigid, already struggling to keep her family together, makes a grisly discovery. In the aftermath, decades-old secrets threaten to prove just as dangerous to the Howleys as the burning, hollow ground beneath their feet.
Inspired by the real-life events in Pennsylvania, where devastating coal mine fires irrevocably changed the lives of residents in Centralia and Carbondale, The Hollow Ground is a compelling, powerful debut with an atmospheric, voice-driven narrative as heartbreakingly captivating as Scout Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird.
What I thought
This was my second time reading this book & I loved it so much that I’m bumping up my previous 4-star rating to 5 stars.
This book really hit home for me, so let me talk about that first. Natalie Harnett absolutely nailed the setting. For those of you who don’t know, I am central Pennsylvanian, born & raised. The coal mine fires that inspired this novel are actually a couple hours northeast from here, but the area I reside in is absolutely steeped in railroading & coal mining history. So, although I can’t speak for how well this translates for people outside of coal country PA, I can say that the pride surrounding this area & this culture absolutely rings true. She even got the dialect right–our almost Southern accent that hangs around the northern end of the Appalachian mountains. As someone who comes from a railroading & coal mining family, it made me all kinds of happy!
I will say, this was not an easy book to read. It is not a heartwarming coming-of-age tale. It is not about the coal fires–the setting acts as a backdrop to the tale while also sort of paralleling this dysfunctional family story. I thought the whole idea of “hollow ground” as applied to not only the literal physical environment, but also to the foundation of this family, SO interesting. And I really hesitate to call this a murder mystery. That aspect moves the story forward, but it isn’t the point.
I think the point here was Brigid’s coming of age & the exploration of family dynamics. Like I said, this wasn’t an easy read. I think what took me so long to read it was because I kept having to put it down because it got so depressing at times. I mean that in the best way though. My husband kept asking me why I was reading it if it upset me so much, and I kept trying to explain that’s what made it SO GOOD. The best authors make you feel something, good or bad; they make you care about the characters. This was like getting punched in the gut–it was so gritty & heartwrenching.
Which brings me to the characters. I adore Brigid, that poor girl. She was such an insightful little girl. The way she told her story was so poignant & my heart just ached for her. I never felt like she was too precocious. The “little girl” in her definitely showed through at times in her thoughts & dialog, but mostly she reads just as what she is–a girl that’s had to grow up too fast. Each generation of this family has its demons & we can clearly see how that affects each subsequent generation. Brigid has to grow up with one parent trying to outrun his past and ultimately failing and another parent who just can’t even accept her past & chooses to ignore it almost. Brigid grows up & you can see her realize, especially with her dad, that the parents she idolized are merely human. On a side note, I absolutely COULD NOT STAND Ma. I hated her. Every time I started to feel empathy towards her, she made me hate her more.
Overall, an outstanding debut–this is one of my favorite books. I can’t wait to read whatever Natalie Harnett writes next!