The Hollow Ground

Written by Natalie S. Harnett
Review by Rebecca Henderson Palmer

Eleven-year-old Brigid Howley lives a grim life in Pennsylvania coal mining country, where mining accidents kill or maim many and the ongoing mine fires threaten to consume them. Brigid is a descendant of a member of the Molly Maguires on her father’s side, and family lore claims that the Howleys are cursed. With a father who is injured and a mercurial, combative mother, Brigid believes in the curse, as she has little cause to believe otherwise.

When a sinkhole claims her aunt’s life, the family is forced to move in with her father’s parents. Brigid’s Gram and Ma have an acrimonious relationship, and Gram makes no secret that Brigid’s late uncle was her favorite child. As the fire spreads – often causing daffodils to bloom in the winter – the federal government declares their neighborhood a slum and begins to demolish the houses, uprooting the residents and leaving them to find new lives elsewhere. Brigid’s Ma leaves, her father descends into melancholy, adultery, and alcohol, and Brigid and her Gram are left to fend for themselves as the demolition date nears.

This novel sheds light on a relatively little-known tragedy, namely the evacuation of entire eastern Pennsylvania mining towns such as Centralia. The people who lived and worked there seem largely forgotten, as if they simply disappeared with their homes. This heartbreaking tale provides insight into their struggles. Brigid must endure poverty, verbal abuse, the abandonment by her mother, the adultery and alcoholism of her father, scandal, and a cyclical pattern of despair from generations past. This story rings true, and yet it’s a difficult one to read, both because of the never-ending series of tragedies and because the readers are left with scant optimism that Brigid will prevail. You will need a box of tissues for this one.