The Hollow Ground by Natalie S. Harnett presents several views of hell. The hell of craving to be loved in ways your relatives cannot manage. The hell of struggling to get by economically as hopes and options dwindle to nothing. Most of all, the hell of living in a plundered landscape where mining companies have gouged the ground hollow and made the earth’s thin crust rage with sink holes, poison gases and underground fires that cannot be extinguished.
The novel’s narrator, Brigid Howley, is eleven years old, going on forty. In her matter-of-fact way, she tells us about her life and that of her family, a white Irish-American clan in the Pennsylvania coal country that she believes has been cursed for generations either by a priest’s malediction or by their own bad choices and worse luck.
Sinkholes and secrets
Brigid’s beloved father, a miner like all the men in his family, was injured years ago in a mysterious mining disaster that took the life of his brother. Brigid also has a beautiful, prickly mother and a baby brother. In 1961, the family is living with a great-aunt until a sinkhole sucks her under and turns her house uninhabitable.
The Howleys have to move in with Daddy’s mother and father in the even more bleak and ecologically devastated town of Barrendale. There Brigid makes a best friend and discovers the body of a murdered man, a crime that brings to light all the secrets, blame, guilt and longing that have roiled under the surface of her family for years.
Upending my expectations
The Hollow Ground upended all of my expectations. Before I opened the novel I had just finished a powerful book that still had me slightly under its spell, so I expected to read a good bit of The Hollow Ground before it fully won my interest. Nope. By the time I had read the prologue – less than a page long – I was utterly absorbed.
The prologue begins, “We walk on fire or air, so Daddy liked to say,” and ends with this: “I’m just saying that sometimes what we seek is something we hope, with all our blood and bone, we’ll never find.” Who can resist such an opening?
I generally don’t like child narrators, and expected Brigid to be equally problematic, either too cute or preternaturally wise. She is neither. Brigid Howley is a unique character with an original narrative voice that is brushed with rough poetry. In fact, every character in the novel – from the members of the Howley family to the women who work in the mill with Brigid’s mother to the detective who investigates the murder – is clear-cut, full-bodied and memorable.
A monstrous crime
But the star of the novel is the earth, exploited and abused by the coal companies until it no longer resembles the planet we know. “Steaming green lawns in the dead of winter.” A character “would talk about which part of her basement was too hot to touch and how many tomatoes had ripened in what should have been the frostbitten ground in her garden.” To me, the murder mystery that creates one strand of the novel shrinks to insignificance in the face of the monstrous crime committed by the coal companies against the land and all the families who live on it.
Most striking was the way the characters and their entire communities take the devastation in stride. When they learn that an inspector needs to test the air in each house in the middle of every night so they don’t suffocate in their sleep, the local families simply leave the door unlocked for him. “They [the coal companies] don’t care how many houses and families they wreck,” Brigid’s grandmother declares, “as long as they get every last flake of coal down to the bedrock.”
This is a novel that creates an unforgettable world teeming with full-bodied characters. Each page rewards the reader with some new insight, character revelation or bit of fresh, distinctive language. Once you read it, you won’t be surprised to learn that The Hollow Ground, published in 2014, won both the John Gardner Fiction Book Award and the Appalachian Book of the Year Award for Fiction.
Get a free copy of The Hollow Ground
The paperback edition of The Hollow Ground was just published in August. I’m happy to have a copy to give away. There are two ways to toss your name in the hat to win a copy.
You can contact me through this blog and let me know you’d like a copy.
Or better yet, you can sign up for my newsletter to be eligible to win this and other free books by women writers. When you receive the newsletter, just hit reply and tell me which book you want.
I’ll choose a name from those who contact me. (Sorry, I can only ship to U.S. addresses.) I hope you will appreciate this new voice in literature and look forward, as I do, to future books by Natalie S. Harnett.