Friday, May 16, 2014

The Hollow Ground

Title:  The Hollow Ground
Author:  Natalie S. Harnett
Publication Information:  St. Martin's Press. 2014. 320 pages.
ISBN:  1250041988 / 978-1250041982

Book Source:  I received this book through a publisher's giveaway free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Favorite Quote:  "But comes a point when a person's got to take 'sponsibility for who they is no matter what their parents done to them ... some things you got to get past, no matter how bad."

The time is the 1960s. The place is the coal mining towns of Pennsylvania. Eleven year old Brigid is a young Irish-American girl growing up poor and troubled in this environment.

This book was like reading two concurrent stories - one the result of the external circumstances and one due to the psychological impact of parental actions on children. The "hollow ground" becomes literal and figurative. The ground beneath these towns is burning, and the land caves in on these burned out pockets. Figuratively, a person too can be a hollow ground, so damaged by events of the past as to be unable to move forward with love. The damage of the past leaves a hollow shell of a person behind.

I found the historical story the more interesting one. The Pennsylvania coal mine fires have been burning since the 1960s. The primary theory as to how the fires started is that a fire was started as a way to clear a dump in preparation for creation of a landfill. The flames reached the underlying coal mines through a hole in the ground - "hollow ground" - and have been burning since.

Over the years, a variety of agencies tried a myriad of remedial actions, but to no avail. Thousands and thousands of people were relocated as a part of the remediation efforts.

In the early 1990s, the Pennsylvania governor exercised eminent domain over the affected lands in an effort to remove the remaining residents. In 2013, an agreement was reached with the still remaining residents that they will be allowed to stay for their lifetime. At that time, the property will belong to the government through the right of eminent domain. Meanwhile, the fires still burn.

This is the environment in which Brigid grows up. A constant struggle to survive. A constant threat of imminent disaster. And that's without even looking at the problems that exist within the family.

The first page of the book talks about "what my daddy went through before whatever it was got broke inside him." The book alludes to the fact that he was involved in a mining accident years ago. In fact, historically, an explosion at the Centralia mine in Pennsylvania killed 111 of the 142 miners present on that day in 1947.

The first sentence of Chapter One states, "When Ma was seven years old her heart turned sour. She said it never turned sweet again." Over the course of the book, Ma's story is revealed. What happened in her childhood? What impact did it have on her life? What effect it is having on Brigid's childhood?

So, Brigid's life is one of physical and environmental hardship and of a daddy who's "broken" and a Ma with a "sour heart." The secrets of their past effect their present and Brigid's future. The believed family curse appears to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Sadness exists. Yet, love exists too. With Auntie. With Gram. And friendship exists. A childhood exists. Perhaps, even hope exists.

The raging fires and the family dysfunction set a very sad and depressing tone for this book. Yet, Brigid emerges as a strong main character who elicits emotion and sympathy, and the history presented is a very real one. Definitely not an easy read, but definitely a worthwhile one.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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