Brigid Howley lives in a Pennsylvania mining town, descended from a line of coal miners whose livelihoods were destroyed when tragedy struck a number of Pennsylvania mines in the early 1900s. Her father is a drunk, a smart man broken by a secret buried in his past. Her mother is a mean-spirited woman long-since hardened by secrets of her own. Her brother appears to have been born mentally ill. After losing their home to one of the horrific underground coal fires that dot the Pennsylvania landscape, they move in with Brigid’s grandparents, a similarly-damaged couple with whom they have an uneasy relationship. But going home forces some of their secrets out into the open, and makes Brigid confront the curse that’s followed her family for generations.
The Hollow Ground tracks the struggles of the Howley clan as they seek to survive day-to-day life in a world where the Earth could literally open up and swallow their home whole at any moment. It’s a powerful hook, but the story often overplays its hand. Drama slips easily into melodrama, and here, The Hollow Ground periodically feels more like poverty-porn than genuine exploration of these people and their time. What’s more, author Natalie S. Harnett ends up shying away from going the distance, pulling some key punches at the last minute, which leaves me uncertain as to how I feel about the almost unrelenting depression of many of the book’s small segments.
Harnett’s novel is a fairly shaggy coming-of-age story, one packed with incident but light, at times, on connective tissue. But that doesn’t mean it’s bad, and if there’s a genre that plays well with loose, unstructured plotting, it’s the coming-of-age drama. Brigid is a frustratingly passive character in Harnett’s story, but not an uninteresting one, and her observation of the passing of one piece of classic American history and the arrival of the next is well handled. Indeed, Harnett cleverly structured the story to avoid most of the clichés inherent to many mid-1900s American stories I see these days, and it makes the aimlessness of certain segments of the book feel clever and practiced in a way I hadn’t expected it to.
The Hollow Ground is a moving novel, rough and captivating, and while I do have some reservations, I have to admit that Harnett is an immensely talented young writer with a keen eye for setting and a strong ability to use that to push a story relentlessly forward. What’s more, as frustrating as they can be, the Howleys are genuinely fascinating people stuck in an awful moment of America’s past with no reasonable way to move forward. And, not for nothing, but Harnett knows how to put words on a page, because time simply slipped away whenever I opened the book. It’s a debut with flaws, but it’s a debut that should get noticed regardless, and one that will speak powerfully to many readers.
Cal Cleary is a librarian and critic in small-town Ohio. You can read more of his work at his blog, The Comical Librarian, and you can follow him on Twitter @comicalibrarian.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Thomas Dunne Books. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.