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  • Writer's pictureJudith D Collins

The Hollow Ground

ISBN: 9781250041982
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Thomas Dunne Books
Publication Date: May 13, 2014
Format: e-book/Other Format
Pages: 336
My Rating: 4 Stars
We walk on fire or air, so Daddy liked to say. Basement floors too hot to touch. Steaming green lawns in the dead of winter. Sinkholes, quick and sudden, plunging open at your feet."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, the formidable Gram and the black lung‒stricken Gramp.
Tragedy is no stranger to the Howleys, a proud Irish-American clan who takes strange pleasure in the “curse” laid upon them generations earlier by a priest who ran afoul of the Molly Maguires. 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 a long-abandoned bootleg mine shaft. 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 real-life events in Centralia and Carbondale, where devastating coal mine fires irrevocably changed the lives of residents.
The Hollow Ground is an extraordinary debut with an atmospheric, voice-driven narrative and an indelible sense of place. Lovers of literary fiction will find in Harnett’s young, determined protagonist a character as heartbreakingly captivating as Scout Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird.

My Review

A special thank you to St Martin's Press, Thomas Dunne Books, and NetGalley, for providing an ARC ifor an unbiased and honest review.
A powerful and extraordinary debut novel! THE HOLLOW GROUND dives into total dysfunction of The Howleys, a wounded family of three generations, with special focus on one special adolescent girl, Brigid, taking upon herself-- burdens of her immediate family, and those of generations past. As the characters come alive---more than the “fires of the community” are out of control; the lives of this family are raging! THE HOLLOW GROUND is inspired by real-life events in Centralia and Carbondale, Pennsylvania (renamed Barrendale in the book), where devastating coal mine fires irrevocably changed the lives of residents. I would encourage readers to visit the author’s website at, prior to reading the book. Very informative, and a wealth of information -- Educator’s Guide, Character Development - inspiration (Bridgid, Ma, Gram), More About the book, and Reading Group Guide. (ideal for bookclubs). Set in the 1960s in the Pennsylvania coal mining country, a novel of a Black Irish Catholic family, experiencing more than a little bad luck; perhaps a curse by a priest, from decades prior during a Molly Maguire incident, involving the grandfather. (or, so they think). However, is the curse really what lies inside your heart and soul? If you are looking for a “feel good” book, this is not for you. THE HOLLOW GROUND is deep, well-written and thought-provoking; whereby, Natalie S. Harnett captures the true essence of the time, the people, characters, destruction, and culture of Pennsylvania's Anthracite Region; the serious threats from the coal mine fires and more importantly, the emotional fallout. The author depicts in realistic terms, the ugliness, destruction, and the devastating conditions during this time (physical and mental), and how it has affected the lives of those passed down thru generations. The environment is poor, people are uneducated, and they are unable to find a way out of this bleak life – no escape from this madness. The novel can be depressing and at times; however, critical and rewarding for the overall story, as THE HOLLOW GROUND explores the intense emotions, of those impacted. The reader can easily sympathize with the environment, the town, and the characters. (Brigid). Brigid wants her family to be happy--she has no financial security or stability, nor any role models. Her family moves from place to place, as her dad is unable to hold down a job, combined with the fires and destruction. She is unable able to make friends and if she does, something happens which involves her crazy family, or their past. (You have Gram praying to the saints, while the girls seeking answers from a Ojai board.) Her unemployed father, (emotional damage) suffered thru a mysterious mine explosion which took the life of his brother—he is in a constant stage of drowning his sorrows in a bottle, and cannot hold a job (either stealing, betting, or scheming). SECRETS AND MORE SECRETS The mother (MA-disliked her), as she was a constant complainer about anything and everything. (Like can you get over your past, and move on)? Of course, she had to tolerate her lazy husband, and she cannot get over, nor forgive the trauma she experienced as a child—her mom died, her father and stepmom sent her to an orphanage at age 4, even though they kept her brother. During the entire book, she vents to her daughter Brigid —she has a huge chip on her shoulder-talks big; however, is always looking for the easy way out, takes no responsibility or control of her life. While Brigid struggles, they move in with the dad’s mom and dad (grandparents), cramped living quarters, with Brigid trying to again maintain order and peace (which is like impossible), as ma gets along with no one-- Ma and Gram have many failings as mothers (mother-daughter dynamics) are a big theme.. The grandparents have their own demons, and the death of the other son, Frank; a constant reminder. So now you have two neglectful parents, and grandparents--no better (Gram has a little spunk), and a challenged little brother. Brigid desires some sort of normalcy in her life and continuously tries to solve everyone’s problems. When eleven-year old Brigid makes a discovery with her friends in the long abandoned bootleg mine shaft, what comes next is dangerous, keeping her from her best friend, and others, plus more secrets begin to unravel, and a mystery to solve. Readers get a first-hand look into the issues faced during this horrific time, with fires burning out of control, destroying homes and lives as well as (governmental neglect, bureaucratic “red tape” involved while waiting for assistance and reimbursement for loss of life and property, politics, and literally no assistance for these people). Due to the coal fires, the officials literally came to the homes in the area to check gas levels each evening for carbon monoxide poisoning. Ma and Daddy are greatly influenced by their pasts, as well as grandparents. Memories and repressed memories—what they remember, what they don’t remember, as well as what they do not recall—shape who they are. Even with the terrifying backdrop of the fire beneath their feet, what takes prominence in the novel-- is Brigid's desire for her family to stay together and have a better life. Will Brigid break the cycle, as secrets unravel? Can saints, curses, or secrets determine happiness or misery? The grounds beneath these mining towns is unsafe—a true metaphor for Brigid’s life—no foundation, parents out of control, and damaged by their disappointments. She will need to find her own inner strength, instead of being bitter, to find a way beyond her family’s past and misfortune. I liked this discussion question: “THE HOLLOW GROUND could be viewed as a cautionary tale about what happens when we delve underground. Do you think mine fires such as the one that took place in Barrendale could serve as an argument against other environmental issues of concern such as fracking or oil drilling?” “There isn’t a family curse,” Auntie explained. “Or that’s not exactly what I mean. There is one. But it’s not out there,” she said, pointing out the window. “It’s in here.” She aimed a thick, slightly crooked finger at me and prodded my chest. “Inside me?” Auntie sighed. “Not just you. Inside each one of us. You see we make—” On a personal note, have experience with environmental devastation, with an uncle and cousin having worked in a mill with fiber and asbestos, in North Carolina during the 1950-60s. To date he is still suffering with lung cancer and now has spread to his kidneys. He is still fighting lawsuits, which have not been settled; unsure they will be before his death. Most people who develop mesothelioma have worked in jobs where they inhaled or ingested asbestos fibers, or were exposed to airborne asbestos dust and fibers in other ways. Fans of T. Greenwood, Carla Buckley, and Jodi Picoult would appreciate THE HOLLOW GROUND. Highly recommend--looking forward to reading more from this newfound and talented author!






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