May 19, 2014

The Hollow Ground

by Natalie S. Harnett

In 1962 the coal in Pennsylvania mines caught fire beneath the ground. This story is about a family that lived there during the fires. It's told from the viewpoint of a young girl, Brigid, who struggles to understand why her family always suffers so much. There is no mention of how the fire started, it is just always an ominous presence in the background. I was appalled to read of how the families lived; not only poor working conditions and low wages that often could not support a family (that subject could make another book all by itself I imagine) but the unsafe conditions caused by the fire, and reluctance of the company to do much about it. The underground heat caused snow to melt and flowers bloom midwinter, in many places the ground was too hot to walk on- playgrounds and schools were closed, streets blocked off, houses condemned. The earth caved in, swallowing buildings and many lives as well. Poisonous gas released by the fire took other lives. "Inspectors" would go around the homes at night testing the air for carbon monoxide; people regularly spent nights with all the windows open and drains plugged up so they wouldn't die in their sleep from the gas. And when their neighborhoods fell into decay, their houses torn down, they often had nowhere to go.

All this fascinated me, but it felt like merely background to a story that was really about the decay of Brigid's family. The bitterness they all held inside, the slow reveal of dark memories and past deeds that haunted people's lives. Brigid's mother was constantly full of anger and hurt from what seemed to her a childhood betrayal- having been put in an orphanage by her stepmother. Her father is nearly always out of work, brought down by a mining accident which took his brother's life and left him with a disabling injury. They drift from place to place, living with relatives and trying to get their own place but always struggling. Eventually the father gets a decent job and the mother finds some long-lost relatives, but neither of them really find the healing or security they are looking for. Things are hard for Brigid as well, who nearly looses her best friend and end up living alone with her grandmother who has a sharp tongue and constant criticism.

Honestly I found it hard to care for all these characters even though they suffered so much. They were insulting each other so continually it was hard to read, especially when I didn't understand at first why they all despised each other so. The first part of the story was more interesting to me, as I read about Brigid's friendships, struggles with her family, explorations into abandoned mine shafts dared by other kids. There's also an element of mysticism, stories of a family curse and healing powers. But the storyline seemed to shift into being all about her mother's pain, this bitter woman trying to overcome a lifetime of feeling rejected. The ending has some closure and a bright outlook for Brigid, but it was sad that her family had dissolved so much, even though she repaired some friendships and became close to her grandmother after all.

I received an ARC copy of this book from the publisher. I was very interested to read it because I have visited parts of coal country in PA, looked for anthracite fossils near abandoned mine sites, drove through the ghost town of Centralia. There's more information about the mine fire at Centralia here. Reading about the experience of a family living through those events was something I looked forward to. There's more about the coal mine fires on the author's website as well.

Rating: 2/5       320 pages, 2014

more opinions:
The Book Stop
Jenn's Bookshelves
Bermudaonion's Weblog

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