Monday, May 19, 2014
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. -- Thomas Dunne Books
I debated whether I should even review THE HOLLOW GROUND by Natalie S. Harnett as part of my Mystery Mondays feature. While there is a mystery surrounding some bones that are found in a mine shaft, I would probably classify this book as literary fiction rather than a mystery. However, I decided that it definitely fits the bill for my purposes!
THE HOLLOW GROUND is eleven-year-old Brigid Howley's story about what happens to her family when they are forced to leave their home and move in with her grandparents after their town is evacuated because of a sink hole that resulted from an underground mine fire. Brigid's family faces some tough times living with Gram, a no nonsense woman who doesn't exactly appreciate Brigid's mother, and her grandfather who is suffering from Black Lung. Her father can't hold down a job and her mother resents having to live with her in-laws. To make matters worse, Brigid's family was "cursed" years ago by a priest and is constantly trying to escape from the curse's clutches.
Brigid does her best to adjust to her new surroundings; however, when she discovers some human remains in a deserted mine shaft, family secrets are revealed. Specifics about Brigid's father's injury and the death of her uncle come to light and make it even more difficult for this troubled family to stay together.
What first drew me to this story is that it took place in a small mining town in Pennsylvania. My grandfather who recently passed away was a coal miner, and I'm always fascinated with any stories having to do with mining. It also didn't hurt that Brigid was being compared to Scout Finch in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD -- one of my all time favorite characters and my favorite book. Needless to say, I had very high expectations for this novel -- probably unreasonably high!
I enjoyed THE HOLLOW GROUND quite a bit, but I think the comparisons to TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD were unfair. Brigid was a fantastic character, and I do think this novel was well-written and compelling. I love coming-of-age stories and this novel had so many things that were stellar; however, I can't say that it's the next TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. Honestly, I doubt I will discover that book in my lifetime!
THE HOLLOW GROUND was a beautifully written book; and I especially loved how well the author brought not only this time period, but the small coal mining town to life. Furthermore, I really loved Brigid's character and how much she evolved throughout the course of the novel. I thought the author did a great job of capturing the essence of an eleven-year-old girl, and I loved that this was "her" story.
The mystery aspect was also interesting and well-done although I mentioned earlier that this book doesn't stand out to me as a traditional mystery. Rather, I think THE HOLLOW GROUND really struck me as a novel about a complex family and their troubled past. I loved how the family relationship was portrayed and their interactions were incredibly interesting to me. In addition, I appreciated how strong some of the characters were and how they dealt with so many hardships and so much tragedy.
THE HOLLOW GROUND would make an excellent discussion book for your next book club meeting. There is a reading guide with ten interesting questions that will help stimulate your discussion. Some of the themes you might want to explore include secrets, marriage, family dynamics, second chances, memories, survival, environmental issues, and redemption. You might also want to discuss some of the symbols in this novel including looking the meaning of exploring what's beneath the surface.
I enjoyed THE HOLLOW GROUND and found it to be an entertaining, and thought-provoking, novel. Highly recommended to fans of literary fiction and even mysteries.
Thanks to Get Red PR for providing a review copy of this novel.