The underground mine fires ravaging Pennsylvania coal country have forced 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 now-infamous Centralia and the equally devastated town of Carbondale, The Hollow Ground is an extraordinary debut with an atmospheric, voice-driven narrative and an indelible sense of place.
“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 synopsis of this book is the kind that plants little hooks inside my historically minded brain and pulls on it. Especially the part of my brain that loves hauntingly atmospheric settings set among neglected snapshots of American history.
The below picture is what first came to mind when I read that the story setting was in a coal mining town in Pennsylvania. I immediately imagined the coal mining children of the early 1900s then realized that Harnett’s novel is set in the 1960s.
Close your eyes and imagine you live in a half-deserted town that has abandoned coal mines scattered about and end-of-the-world sized cracks in the ground with what looks like the steamy breath of hell seeping through them. That’s the story setting. Part of me was really wishing that this had been a full-fledged horror novel. There are, indeed, some horrific moments and they are presented in that strange and spellbinding way that leaves you questioning what exactly ‘just happened’.
Pictures of the town of Centralia from brave tourists.
Brutal and raw in its telling, the book deals with a murder mystery, a family curse and the adolescence of the book’s narrator, Brigid Howley. I enjoyed how these plot lines were woven through the story of Brigid’s personal experiences. While I sympathized with Brigid, I cannot say I enjoyed seeing the world through her eyes. It was utterly depressing and the supporting characters are so dramatically flawed that I found myself feeling rage on more than one occasion. I found it particularly meaningful in how the book presented the Irish-American family’s ”curse”. This thread of the story highlighted the importance behind words and beliefs and how a child can interpret the careless words of adults in damaging ways.
The Hollow Ground has been compared to To Kill A Mocking Bird and a Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I’ve read both of those books (it’s been a LONG while) and I understand the comparison, but those were not the associations this book conjured for me. There are adult themes of abuse, alcoholism and violence that are presented in a much more raw way than what I remember from TKAM and ATGIB. I think those comparisons are aimed at a specific audience and as someone who reads all over the charts, I found myself comparing The Hollow Ground to Victorian era classic literature and a Young Adult novel (strange, I know). If I had to compare this book to others, I would say it’s a mix between a Thomas Hardy novel and a Cat Winter’s novel.
The author has done an amazing job of capturing the coming-of-age voice of Brigid Howely and has painted the story world in a way that the reader knows it’s the 1960s but feels like the little town of Centralia, PA is stuck in an ominous time-warp, still holding on to the early 20th century. I would recommend this book for the author’s lovely writing alone, but also recommend it for those who like to read about tucked away tragedies in small, creepy towns.
Here’s an interesting documentary on the town of Centralia if you are intrigued by its history after reading The Hollow Ground like I was:
And just for fun:
Here’s a creepy little video comparing Centralia to Silent Hill, the creepy-ass video game that has given me nightmares since teen-hood, lol. (If you don’t care about the full backstory, you can skip in to 2:30 to see the drive through town footage.)
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