The Hollow Ground is a historical novel that takes place in Pennsylvania in the 60’s, in small coal-mining towns that are being ravaged by underground coal mine fires. Brigid Howley is eleven years old and growing up amidst the turbulence of miners who are unable to work and people losing their homes and their lives to these fires.
This is very much a coming of age novel in the traditional sense, with a fascinating historical backdrop. It put me in mind of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, in that it’s really the story of Brigid dealing with her troubled parents and their precarious financial situation. Brigid’s mother is emotionally damaged from being abandoned by her father and stepmother as a child. She was actually driven to an orphanage and left there, never to see her family again. Brigid’s father was injured in a horrible mining tragedy. Brigid worships her father even though she sees how his drinking and gambling hurts her family.
Brigid is intrigued by the mines despite seeing its destruction all around her. Her grandfather was part of the Molly Maguires, a group that advocated for better working conditions in the mines. The history and setting of this book was fascinating, in that the ground is literally eating up homes and blocks below their feet, or poisoning people in their beds, and all of this actually happened.
I always appreciate a book with this much historical detail, but where the story is really about family and relationships. This book is written in a very matter of fact tone but is full of heart. Brigid struggles with having a mother she doesn’t actually like very much (even though she still needs her love) and a father who adores her even though lets her family down again and again. Even more interesting is the push and pull between her father and mother. They love each other and hate each other. Somehow Harnett really brought this difficult but realistic relationship to life for me.
Harnett also brings to life the character of Brigid’s grandmother, who grows more complex as the book goes on. You think she’s just this bitter, angry old woman but she’s more than that. I found all the adults in this novel sympathetic. Harnett starts out painting them as villains and gradually develops them as complicated individuals.
This is not a fast moving novel, and it’s not quite the murder mystery it’s presented as — which I appreciated. The book is described by the publisher as being about a body that Brigid discovers in the mine. Yes, that happens, but it’s not quite the catalyst for the whole story. Really, this is a story about growing up in poverty and turmoil. It’s a story of a troubled family. What happened in the mines is more of a backdrop.
As a debut novel, this was very well done. I wasn’t sure I’d get into it at first, but I did. I thought I might put it aside for something easier, but found I really wanted to see what would happen. I could identify with Brigid, who doesn’t ask for much out of life but is still disappointed again and again.
One small thing that bothered me was that Brigid starts out the book growing kind of boy crazy, even though she knows her family has a history of “getting in trouble” and she also knows her mother and grandmother will kill her if that happens. This aspect of Brigid’s character just gets dropped halfway through the book, which didn’t seem very realistic for a teenage girl.
Note: I received an advance review copy of this book from publisher Thomas Dunne Books in exchange for an honest review. This book was released for publication on May 13, 2014.