The John Gardner Fiction Book Award, 2015
Appalachian Book of the Year (Fiction), 2014
Longlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award
"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 11-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.
©2014 Natalie S. Harnett (P)2014 Audible, Inc.
“Harnett’s deeply atmospheric historical novel of the harsh old mining life captures the despair of a family at the mercy of the earth’s elements and their own worst impulses.” (Booklist)
“Brigid is no ordinary hard-luck heroine; her voice rings true, offering a matter-of-fact telling that never falls into self-pity or melodrama. Set against the 1960s Pennsylvania coal mine fires, this debut novel is a dark and rewarding read.” (Library Journal)
"Narrator Luci Christian's youthful charisma provides a natural portrayal of preteen Brigid Howley, who is struggling with family secrets in a poverty-stricken coal town in the 1960s. Christian's clear, delicate voice belies the girl's impoverished upbringing and poor education--but does depict Brigid's naïve hopefulness amid her family's wretched circumstances." (AudioFile)
Book review: The Hollow Ground by Natalie S. Harnett
Caveat: I'm not a reviewer, I have no experience at this. I actually won this book in a giveaway and was stunned by what I ended up listening to. (I won an audiobook version.)
To start, this isn't a book I believed I'd have interest in. A slice of life story of a young girl growing up in central Pennsylvania during the coal fires mid-20th Century. The subject and style of story are completely different than my normal reading material, which largely consist of Sci-Fi, history and military literature.
That said, this book sucks you in with the honest, bare, and real feeling of being there. The main character is honest and written as a real child in hard times, not a genius, not precocious, just a living feeling person suffering with the difficulties of living a destitute existence while enduring a broken family and the constant prospect of the mine fires taking her loved ones or home at any moment.
The story winds through the growth of this girl, from young child to young adult. It covers a variety of realities with ease, from the mine fires, to family dynamics, to homelessness, racism, alcoholism, abuse and abandonment.
The characters are written as real people, a hard thing to do with any work of fiction, but in this, they are exactly the type of people I spent my youth surrounded by. Entitled poor white trash that believes everyone owes them something, with the bullheaded pride of those not smart enough to know their own limitations and instead believe that their failures are the fault of an outside source, be that God, other people, the government or a family curse. The mother, especially embodies this, I literally wanted to smack the woman at times, seeing in her all of the worst flaws I recognize from many of my peers and their parents when I was a youth.
I can't recommend this book enough to anyone wanting a slow-paced, generally uplifting read with real insight into the human condition.
Five reasons to grab your ear-buds and take a walk with The Hollow Ground:
1. Harnett realistically captures this small mining town and the horrific horrors they deal with from nightly checked for gas levels to a down turned economy devastated by the fires and the fleeing of townsfolk. She takes us into the dysfunctional home of eleven-year-old Brigid Howley an Irish-American family with secrets and hardship. The story is atmospheric, character driven and beautifully captures this period.
2. The story unfolds through Brigid Howley’s perspective as she narrators events, shares her family curse and reasons out the behavior of her family. She is a curious mixture of childlike innocents and wisdom beyond her years. Her voice is incredibly realistic and heartfelt. Readers will fall in love with Brigid, and her voice will engrain itself forever in your mind. Reviewers have likened her to Scout Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, and I whole-heartily agree.
3. Harnett captures the raw emotions of this family exposing their secrets and daily struggles. She adds moments of light into this bleak world. Family can tear each other down and lift each other up like nobody’s business, and we gain an insider’s perspective that is real and raw through the eyes of this child. The tale was captivating and realistically portrayed.
4. The secondary characters had depth as Harnett held nothing back. Brigid’s parents were complicated, frustrating, and damaged. Harnett gave them powerful voices even when they said nothing. As the reader they stunned me, made me angry and yet Harnett allowed me to feel sympathy and gain understanding. Gram was an ornery hoot, who holds grudges, will not listen to reason and loves with a ferocious intensity. I both scorned and adored her.
5. The Hollow Ground is an atmospheric tale that will stay with you as will Brigid’s voice. Add this to your reading list if you enjoy tales inspired by actual events, learning about American history and delving into the dynamics of the dysfunctional families. Luci Christian the narrator did an excellent job of bringing Brigid and her family to life. Each character was easily recognizable and their emotions evident in her voice.
THE HOLLOW GROUND is a strong character-driven historical novel that takes readers back to the Pennsylvania coal mine fires in the early 1960s. It’s also very much a coming-of-age story for the young protagonist, Brigid Howley. What can I say about Brigid, except that she was a survivor! She told it like it was, her life as the daughter of a loving yet irresponsible alcoholic father, and a distant mother with major abandonment issues. They were refugees of a sort, forced to move from place to place, trying to outrun the coal fires underground.
I love reading books like this that transport me to a time and place I’m not familiar with, and let me see life vividly through the characters’ eyes. I’d known about the long-burning coal fires, but it didn’t occur to me that these dangerous mines were underneath so many homes, putting families just like Brigid’s in peril from poison gasses, explosions, and cave-ins.
The audiobook was narrated by Luci Christian, and I enjoyed her performance very much. Not only did she do a great reading as the precocious 12-year old Brigid, her voices for the secondary characters were spot on, especially cantankerous old Gram.
THE HOLLOW GROUND is an impressive debut novel filled with memorable characters and eye-opening historical details of the Pennsylvania coal fires. It’s a story with much darkness, but leaves readers with a light at the end of the tunnel.
Rating: 4.5 Stars
Disclosure: A copy of this audiobook was provided by Audible.com in exchange for an honest review.
Wow - I wish Audible had classified this for what it really is - a "young adult" book. I always try to finish what I start, but this was tough. Not a great story for me but maybe for someone about 14.
Life's good when I am listening to a great book.
I have a mixed review of this novel. I do enjoy historical fiction and was fascinated to learn about the coal mines in Pennsylvania during the early 60's. I knew nothing about the fires in the mines nor about the land sinking into the tunnels left behind from the mines. This novel was written primarily from the viewpoint of a young girl growing up in the early 60s in a coal-mining town of Pennsylvania. The family dynamics were well developed and the child's relationship with her father, the miner, were believable and did draw me into the child's world. I do agree that this is more of a "young adult" novel than it is an adult literary experience. The historical aspects were not explained or explored as much as I would have appreciated following the interest developed at the start of the book regarding the fires raging in the mining tunnels and the ensuing problems to the land. The author chose a topic, place and period of time that were ripe for good story telling, and although she did a good job transporting the reader into the family and the experiences of the early adolescent protagonist; she fails to develop the historical aspects and the story complexity which could have moved this book out of the Young Adult category and into Adult Historical Fiction category. I do recommend this book for a reader interested in "light" historical fiction combined with a family study written from a young girl's perspective.
This is a sleeper .. And it's worth it. The last 3 chapters had me captivated. This is a must read .. Errrr, listen ... Particularly for those with abandonment issues.
Retired CFO, Army wife, Mom of five, Grandma of six, two sons who served in combat, love to read books that reflect my values and faith, love mysteries, historical, military stories, and books that don't waste my time . . . if it doesn't have an ending that was worth the wait, I'm not a happy camper.
Good, historical tale about a mining family and a mining town . . . but it could have and should have been told in half the time . . . very repetitive, although it took nearly until the end to reveal all of the family's sad secrets . . . and there never really was a break through or good resolution.
I Loved this story and the performance. Could not stop listening. I was so sorry to get to the end. So good I will relish listening to 8t again.
I liked the historical aspect of a particular place in time in America. A story of coal mining families. This brings me to thinking of how hard people have worked and their sacrifice in hopes to reach the American Dream.
I think of The rawness of the past that people carry with them and the choices people make for or against their own happiness, which Inturn affects others. Family is either the rock or the burden.
I liked Brigid particularly, and even though at times I wanted to throttle her mother, I grew to empathize with her as well.
Fire and Ice
I liked this book immensely. There were times I could feel the burning ground beneath my feet, the anger at Brigid's grandmother, and the pain and confusion of growing up and being forced to confront reality. Yes, it is definitely more of a young adult novel, but it does contain mature themes that could be understood by adults.
It is a pot boiler of a novel, with flawed characters, some of whom I loved to hate. It is a poignant tale of family dysfunction, and how the things we believe to be true may not just be true.
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