Natalie Harnett’s The Hollow Ground is part family saga, part historical novel, part literary mystery, and all parts good reading. Set in the early sixties, the novel is inspired by actual events in Carbondale and Centralia, Pennsylvania, where mine fires rage underground.
Harnett wastes no time developing suspense. In the first chapter, the book’s narrator, 11-year-old Brigid Howley, loses her beloved aunt to a firey sinkhole. She is one of the few people in Brigid’s life who gives her hope. Within the novel, this loss is both ordinary and cataclysmic.
The author writes, “It wasn’t until flames burst up from the pit that the first scream escaped my throat. I screamed to Auntie, I screamed to the fire. I screamed so that God would have to hear, would have to listen….Already I knew. It was my fault because Auntie had told me the curse’s secret—that it lived inside each one of us—and for that the curse had taken her away.”
The referenced family curse has haunted the Irish-American family for generations. It’s also a badge of honor.
Whenever something bad happens, the father, Adrian, says, “We walk on fire or air.”
The narrator explains, “…the hollowed out ground that either burned with flames or sagged into nothingness had given us a kind of magic—had made us able to survive what would kill anyone else.”
Indeed, the dysfunctional Howley family has a lot to survive: anger, abandonment, alcoholism, estrangement, and poverty. Mix in skewed love, poor parenting, relocation, and the hard work of the mills and mines and you have a captivating novel that propels its readers forward.
Much of the family’s trauma and the book’s mystery stem from “the disaster,” a mining tragedy that maimed Adrian and killed many of the town’s men, including Adrian’s brother Frank, Gram and Gramp’s favorite child.
But just as heart-wrenching is the mystery of Brigid’s mother, Dolores, who was sent to an orphanage as a child by her stepmother. As an adult, Dolores tries to understand who she is by reconnecting with her prosperous brother.
Similar comparisons echo throughout the story. The constant turmoil deepens our understanding of the coal towns devastated by familial, governmental, and environmental rifts.
In the novel’s central mystery, Brigid discovers a skeleton in an abandoned bootleg mine shaft. This prompts the local detective to reopen an old murder case. What happens next redraws the lines between past and present, memory and truth, and family and forgiveness.
The deep and painful cracks in this family eventually open space for healing. Natalie Harnett’s The Hollow Ground adds to our knowledge of Pennsylvania coal country, but more importantly, expands our understanding of the human spirit.
That book is "The Hollow Ground" by Natalie Harnett. It’s published by Thomas Dunne Books.It recently won the Applachian Book of the Year Award and the John Gardner Fiction Award. The author will be visiting Lock Haven University and Altoona beginning on Thursday, November 5th with a reading in the Multi-purpose room in the Parson's Union Building at 6 p.m.
Reviewer Marjorie Maddox is a frequent contributor to BookMark. She is also the author of nine poetry collections and a professor of English and Director of Creative Writing at Lockhaven University. Her latest poetry collection is “Local News from Someplace Else."