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Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Pennsylvania Coal Fires Make Vivid Backdrop For Poignant Coming-of-Age Novel

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

At eleven years old, Brigid Howley already knows the truth about the coal she breathes in every day—it creeps inside, infects every part of you, and never, ever leaves.  Two generations of her Irish immigrant family have crawled through the mines in Pennsylvania's Anthracite Coal Region, squinting in the darkness, hacking at the earth in an effort to make ends meet.  After a mining accident which crushed his arm and left his brother dead, Brigid's father has given up.  Her shrewd, sharp-tongued mother isn't much better.  As fire burns beneath them all, hollowing out not just the ground but also their hearts, the Howleys blame an old family curse for their poverty and misfortune.  The grimness of her hardscrabble life makes a believer out of Brigid, even if her beloved great-aunt, with whom the Howleys are living, thinks it has more to do with choices than chance.  

When Auntie is swallowed by a sinkhole in her yard, a grieving Brigid is forced to relocate with her family to a slightly safer town.  Moving in with her father's parents is hardly an improvement.  Plagued by Black Lung, Gramp is a terrifying, angry presence.  Bitter Gram, whose flagrant dislike of Brigid's mother makes her even more caustic, is worse.  As Brigid tries—unsuccessfully—to keep the peace, she makes a gruesome discovery in an old mine.  Her find brings up long-buried secrets that threaten to ruin the Howleys just as surely as the coal coating their lungs.  Can Brigid defy the family curse and bring some healing to her scarred family?  Or will she, too, be drowned by the sad desperation that defines nearly everything and everyone she's ever known?

As you can probably tell, The Hollow Ground, a debut novel by Natalie S. Harnett, is not a cheery tale.  In fact, it's downright depressing.  It's also a tense, highly atmospheric story inspired by the effects of real-life underground fires burning in Pennsylvania towns like Carbondale and Centralia.  Through Harnett's vivid portrayal of the Howley Family, it's easy to see the devastation that often comes about because of unemployment, poverty, and hopelessness.  Brigid is an entirely sympathetic character, an old soul trapped by her deplorable circumstances.  It's easy to root for her as she tries to keep her family together.  Although the novel does feature a mystery, its most compelling aspect is the family drama at its center.  At its heart, The Hollow Ground is a poignant coming-of-age story set against a stark backdrop.  It's bleak and disheartening, true, but it's also vivid and enlightening.  Overall, I found this gloomy read compelling.  I couldn't look away from the Howleys troubles, even though I really, really wanted to.  Like I said, it's not a happy story.  It is, however, a memorable one.

(Readalikes:  Reminds me a bit of Baker Towers by Jennifer Haigh and Whiter Than Snow by Sandra Dallas)


If this were a movie, it would be rated:

for language (1 F-bomb, plus milder invectives), sexual content, violence, and depictions of underage drinking

To the FTC, with love:  I bought a finished copy of The Hollow Ground with a portion of the millions I make from my lucrative career as a book blogger.  Ha ha.


  1. Hmmm...I liked White Than Snow. Have not read Baker Towers. I find the idea of fires burning below ground really horrifying and scary. As you say, a depressing book, but it appeals to me. Why is that? LOL

    1. I know! I didn't know anything about the PA coal fires until I read this book. They're real and completely terrifying. I found the idea of the novel intriguing, too, I just didn't realize it was so depressing. It's similar in setting to WHITER THAN SNOW, but much more grim.

  2. Yeah, this one sounds so dang depressing. I'm not sure I could handle it.

  3. Yes, it does sound depressing but the author must be talented to weave such a compelling tale that makes one not want to stop reading.

    1. The book is definitely well-written. It's a very atmospheric novel, vivid and affecting. It's just really sad.


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