"A girl's coming-of-age story that will long burn in your heart!"
Reviewed by Audrey Lawrence
Posted January 12, 2016
Literature and Fiction
Eleven-year-old Brigid Howley remembers a time when her ma
smiled and laughed, but
that was long ago. Now, she does her bit to make life
easier for her parents and cooks and cleans for them.
They have had more than their fair share of bad luck or is
the generations old family curse?
It is 1961. Brigid's family is living at an aunt's house in
Centrereach, smackdab in the coal mining region of
Pennsylvania. Deep underground, a coal vein has caught
fire and is raging. Flames burst out unexpectedly from
the ground, basement floors feel warm on the feet,
sinkholes rise and fall, and poisonous gases kill the
Brigid's family has to
relocate to her grandparents' house in Barrendale. There,
her dad is definitely not the favoured son and her mother,
Delores had sworn to never return. Now, cap in
hand, life's circumstances have overtaken her mom's
objections. Will the Howley curse continue to haunt them?
How will they get on?
THE HOLLOW GROUND is an awesome debut coming-of-age novel
by Natalie S. Harnett based on actual events and stories.
Harnett's fictional town of Barrendale is inspired by
Harnett's memories and research on circumstances and
events in Carbondale, Pennsylvania, and it is easy to see
why she won both the 2014 Appalachian Book of the
well as the 2015 John Gardner Fiction Book Award.
I found THE HOLLOW GROUND to be a totally engrossing read
with lots of little mysteries as Brigid strives to make
sense of life events and to understand what
pleases and upsets her Irish American family members.
Despite the family's poverty and bitter fights, Brigid
still finds some degree of small joys and normalcy due to
her youth and innocence. She is the shining star in
this dark tale of the dysfunction, but
will her love for them be enough?
THE HOLLOW GROUND is filled with diverse characters who all
have their own issues and problems. Yet, they all come
vividly and realistically to life. One of Harnett's many
talents as a writer is how well she captures the dialogue
between the characters and uses their interactions with
each other to layer in the oppressiveness of the
environment in which they continue to live and the
slowness of government to do anything meaningful to help
with these horrific environmental circumstances, which
continue to this day.
Despite the despair and darkness, Harnett is sure to keep
you fascinated with how people cope with their lives, how
they deal with each other, and how Brigid grows in her
understanding of the people around her. Like me, you
will want to keep turning the pages to find out if
Grandma's "big idea" will work. THE HOLLOW GROUND is sure
become a classic that you will
definitely not want to miss! Enjoy!
Winner of the John Gardner Fiction Book Award!
We walk on fire or air, so Daddy liked to say.
floors too hot to touch. Steaming green lawns in the dead
winter. Sinkholes, quick and sudden, plunging open at
The underground mine fires ravaging Pennsylvania coal
country have forced eleven-year-old Brigid Howley and her
family to seek refuge with her estranged grandparents,
formidable Gram and the black lung stricken Gramp.
is no stranger to the Howleys, a proud Irish-American
who takes strange pleasure in the "curse" laid upon them
generations earlier by a priest who ran afoul of the
Maguires. The weight of this legacy rests heavily on a
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
the Howleys as the burning, hollow ground beneath their
Inspired by real-life events in Centralia and Carbondale,
where devastating coal mine fires irrevocably changed the
lives of residents, THE HOLLOW GROUND is an extraordinary
debut with an atmospheric, voice-driven narrative and an
indelible sense of place. Lovers of literary fiction will
find in Harnett's young, determined protagonist a
as heartbreakingly captivating as any in contemporary
ExcerptWhen Ma was seven years old her heart turned sour. She
said it never turned sweet again, but I remember a time,
long before the mine fires burned beneath our towns, when
Ma’s eyes glowed like sunlit honey, when her voice rose
and fell as pleasantly as a trickling creek. While
Brother was swelling up Ma’s belly, or flailing around in
the crib, or crawling on the brown linoleum of the
trailer over by Mercher’s Dump, we were happy. The thing
that changed Ma wasn’t there. But I remember the moment
it arrived. Me and Ma were playing tiddlywinks at the
kitchen table. Daddy was still in bed, watching us from
his cot in the living room and telling a story about the
tiddlywinks queen and princess. Back then I was so young
and stupid I thought all daddies slept that way, separate
from the rest of us, dozing till noon. Brother scribbled
chalk on the kitchen floor, trying his best to make that
cruddy linoleum look pretty.
Through the kitchen window came this light, the color of
swallowtail or goldfinch wings. I’ve never seen a light
like that again. It felt like it shot through the slats
of my ribs, searing me with a kind of happiness maybe all
kids feel ’cause they don’t know any better. But then
deep in Brother’s plump little throat formed this squeal
of delight. Within seconds he was up, standing all on his
own, and charging toward us with his first steps.
Ma turned, spreading her arms, cooing like a mourning
dove. But when he fell into her, sobs shot from her mouth
like the fire itself had flamed up through the floor and
singed the skin from her bones. I lunged from my chair
and pulled the baby from her arms, thinking he’d hurt
her. Which I guess he did. Because right then her eyes
went from liquidy amber to the scratchy dull color of
sassafras bark. Her voice ever afterward bobbed with
Whenever I reminded Ma of this moment, she said her heart
forgot it was broken but then remembered. How can you
make it forget again? I’d ask. Over and over, I’d ask.
But her mouth merely pressed into that tight squiggle
that made me think of the worms I dug up for fishing. The
worms still lived after you cut a piece of them off. I
guess that’s how it was for Ma. A piece of her was gone
and for a little while she forgot about it.
When I woke that February morning, the morning that
changed our lives, the pinkish air pushing in the opened
window told of snow. I snuggled closer underneath the
covers toward Auntie and pictured the mine fire flaming
along the veins of coal beneath our town, veins as
numerous and intricate as the blue ones on Auntie’s legs.
The fire lived by sucking air through the ground and
burping up gases through our walls. I sucked in and blew
out to see my breath form a cloud, which made me think of
the Holy Ghost. A white blob was how I pictured Him, a
white blob hovering over the apostles’ heads before
burning them all with tongues of flame.
Auntie used to say the flames gave the apostles more than
the gift of language, the flames gave them understanding.
I thought if that was true, perhaps the fire eating the
underground mine shafts of Centrereach was trying to tell
me something—to give me its own kind of wisdom. I’m
Brigid, named after Saint Brigid, who was named, some
say, after the pagan goddess of fire. A saint who made
the sores of a leper disappear. Smoothed the cracks in a
madman’s mind. A healer, like Auntie, though Auntie never
allowed anyone to call her a healer. Something healed
through her, she said, explaining that she was something
like a messenger.
Groaning, Auntie sat up. She reached for a mug of water
on the nightstand and with a spoon tapped at the film of
ice that had formed during the night.
“Auntie,” I asked, “how can you make a heart forget?”
Auntie took a sip from her mug, wincing at the sting of
the cold water on her teeth. Slowly she shuffled to the
closet where she stretched to unhook the shaggy bathrobe
that hung on the door. As she slipped into the robe, a
hidden smile tugged at the sides of her mouth. The story
of “The Great Forgetting” was one of my favorites and
Auntie savored the retelling of a town in the Carpathian
Mountains where the people had been pillaged for so many
centuries that they knew no joy.
Tugging the belt snug on her robe, Auntie spoke and as
she did the white hairs on her chin glistened in the
dresser lamp’s light: “They prayed for years to forget
the past until they no longer believed God listened. Then
one day the youngest child in the village awoke to find a
perfectly round egg in his crib. Word spread of this
marvel. Within hours, the villagers forgot everything—not
only their grief, but the curves of their beloved’s face,
their children’s names. They stumbled through the
streets, meeting neighbors, childhood friends, their very
own father or mother, as if meeting that person for the
first time. Their only memory was of the babe finding the
oddly shaped egg. ‘Don’t hurt the child,’ a big fat shiny
black crow squawked.”
Auntie bent her arms like wings and flapped them. We both
smiled in pleasure. Auntie loved telling the story and
the way she spoke I loved to listen. When Auntie came to
America as a little girl, her grammar school trained the
Ukrainian accent out of her, a different kind of
forgetting. But if you listened carefully you could still
hear the sounds of her first language lilting her words.
Auntie dropped her arms and continued: “But as soon as
the snows melted, the healthiest of the young men carried
the tot to a mountain crag. There, they left him to die
and by the following dawn marauders conquered the
village, slaying every person, young or old. Now only the
story of what happened to the town remains.”
Auntie touched one of the colorful wooden icons on her
dresser top and made the sign of the cross backwards.
Auntie was Great-uncle’s wife and we loved her, but she
wasn’t raised Catholic. Daddy said that wasn’t her fault
because the place she was born was so horrible even God
left it. But Auntie said her hometown in the Ukraine was
a Garden of Eden until an iron curtain closed around it,
making it impossible to go back. “They say home is where
the heart is,” Auntie often said. “That means I’ll never
see my heart again.”
While Auntie rummaged in her top drawer for the heavy
woolens she wore under her housedress, I charged out from
the covers, reaching for my red woolen coat on the chair.
Slipping into it, I waited for the magic of its heat as I
stood by the window watching the early morning twilight
give way to dawn. In the distance, hovering above the
fields, was a mist that I imagined was the ghost of the
family curse coming to get us, even though I knew the
mist was caused by the fire burning beneath the ground.
Thinking of ghosts made me think again of the Holy Ghost
with its tongues of flame and I quivered with excitement
at the thought that something important might happen that
Once the chill was off my skin, I crossed the hall to
Brother’s room. Brother’s little body nestled cocoonlike
under Auntie’s brown and lime green granny-square afghan.
With his back to the wall, his pink mouth sucking the
cold air, Brother’s slender Ma face had a kind of
sweetness to it that only little kids get.
“Come on,” I said, kicking at the mattress. “Take off
your pajamas and put on clean underwear. Then put on your
clothes.” If you didn’t tell him exactly what to do, it
was your own fault when he screwed it up. We’d all
learned that lesson.
I handed him fresh clothes, then shuffled to the opposite
end of the hall to peer into Ma and Daddy’s room. Ma and
Daddy slept with their backs to each other, aimed for
escape, exactly the way all Howleys sleep. This, I
thought, was Auntie’s magic. Before we moved in with her,
Ma and Daddy never slept together. But as soon as Auntie
invited us to move in, she started brewing a remedy to
sneak into Ma’s and Daddy’s morning coffee. Within weeks
they started not only sleeping together, but eating
Head cocked, I listened until I was certain I heard Ma’s
breezy sighs in between Daddy’s rasps. Then I rushed down
the hall to pound on Brother’s door. “It’s Saturday,
stupid,” I growled. “My favorite day. If you mess with
me, I’ll let you-know-who into your bedroom tonight.”
I waited. He had a morbid fear of the boogeyman. Being a
little kid, Brother believed the family curse made him
more susceptible to monsters and ghosts coming into his
room at night. I was five years older and knew the curse
usually came from somewhere you’d never expect.
“Breakfast, Auntie,” I called as I pounded down the
stairs. I set the oatmeal to boil and by the time Auntie
came down, I had her apple sliced and her hot water with
Auntie squeezed my shoulder. “What a good girl,” she
said, bending near enough so that her wiry hair brushed
my cheek, the closest she ever came to a hug or cuddle.
As much as I craved to be near her, Auntie’s love didn’t
come by way of touch.
I poured Brother and me two glasses of milk and as we
settled down to eat, Auntie told stories, real ones about
gruesome farming accidents, starving winters, rivers that
made towns into lakes. Stories from before she came to
this country and after. Long ago, before World War I,
Auntie married Gramp’s brother. She married into the
curse, yet you wouldn’t know it to hear her tales of woe.
Still, her stories usually ended with the town paying
some cripple’s doctor’s bills or repairing some widow’s
house. “It was a time,” she’d say, always with a whistle
of regret, “when everyone helped everyone. When things
were getting better, not worse.”
After finishing her stories, Auntie left to deliver a
remedy to the Clarks—our neighbors who’d nearly died from
carbon monoxide poisoning while watching TV with the
windows shut—and minutes later, Ma and Daddy made their
way downstairs. Barely awake, Ma didn’t even nod at me as
she passed through the kitchen to step out onto the sun
porch for her first smoke of the day. Through the glass
door I watched her, the pom-pom on top of her striped
knit hat bobbing, her long stringy light brown hair
snagging the watery February sunlight and shimmering
golden. Golden was the color Ma said her hair used to be
when she was little, the color I always wished mine was.
Mine was a color neither blond, red, or brown. Mouse
color, Ma said. But I would have done anything to have
hair the rich brown of the field mice who darted through
Daddy sat on one of the wooden kitchen chairs with his
bad arm resting on the table. When Daddy was young his
arm got smashed in the Devil Jaw mining disaster and it
ached him ever since. When I pictured Daddy in that
disaster I thought of the tunnel as a gaping mouth and
the chunks of coal jutting like teeth closing down on
him. Daddy’s brother was killed that day and Ma said a
part of Daddy died with him. I used to like to think
about that dead part of Daddy and what Daddy would be
like if all of him was whole and alive the way he must
have been before the disaster. Daddy rarely talked about
dead Uncle Frank or the disaster but when he did his eyes
darkened over like dusk fell inside them.
That morning Daddy complained about the cold, wondering
when the government would give us the gauge meters they’d
promised so we could monitor the gas levels in the house
and not need to leave the windows open. Then he nodded
toward the porch and said, “Time to get moving,
princess.” It was in everyone’s best interest for me to
get Ma’s breakfast ready fast. Ma was a heavy smoker and
could barely function till she had her first smoke, but
she was already coming out of her haze, sharpening her
tongue on the icy air.
“Don’t go giving her no swelled head, Adrian!” Ma
shouted. “She ain’t no princess and the world won’t treat
her like one. You just make things harder on her thinking
“Ah, what a bite on that Irish tongue,” Daddy said,
kidding because that tongue was nothing like it usually
was, dulled by the nicotine coating her mouth and the
exhaustion she always felt by the week’s end.
Ma swung open the door and tramped to the table.
Dutifully I heated up the pan, thinking how the way
people liked their eggs matched their personalities. Ma
all folded with the center golden part cooked and
flattened. Daddy, raw and drippy, running all over with
just a flick of a fork’s tine.
“Goddamn it, Brigid,” Ma shouted, pointing at where I’d
glopped egg onto the stove. “That’s what happens when you
don’t pay attention. When I was your age, they wouldn’t
give me nothing to eat for the whole day if I’d wasted
good food like that. Accident or not!”
“Lores,” Daddy said as if he’d swallowed the “Do” of Ma’s
name. Dolores means sorrow and Daddy always tried to take
some of that sorrow from her and hold it inside him. As
he sat across from her at the table, you could see it in
him—the sadness with Ma’s name on it. Brother probably
saw the sadness too because he came over from where he
was playing with his cars on the kitchen floor and
nestled his head to Ma’s chest, her breasts just as
pointy as all the features of her face, and it struck me
that this was all Brother probably remembered—Ma and
Daddy joking and eating together. He was only six years
old so he probably didn’t remember the trailer over by
Mercher’s Dump or home being anything but Auntie’s house.
I flipped two eggs and served Ma. Then I did Daddy’s
breakfast. The two yolks on the plate looked up at him
like gleaming eyes in a ghost’s face. Daddy slopped with
his toast at the yolks, letting the yellow ick drip down
his chin—a family joke. We always pointed and gagged,
watching him perform this disgusting feat like he was a
circus performer. This time he played it up special and
my stomach clenched like so many fists. He was supposed
to take Brother to Katz’s Department Store for their end-
of-winter coat sale, but afterwards he must have been
planning to go to Pete’s Pub. Ma must have been able to
tell too because she said, “Take your time today, Adrian.
I’m thinking of having some of the girls over to play
I knew Ma didn’t want Daddy around when her girlfriends
came over because she was ashamed that he had no job,
which was crazy because most of the daddies around had no
job. I guess Daddy knew too because he said, “I’ll take
all the time I want.” And then he looked her dead in the
eye so she knew not to start with him. For me, I didn’t
mind if Ma had some of her friends over, even though it
meant I’d have to clean up and serve coffee and cake. I
didn’t mind because while she was at work and while Daddy
and Brother were shopping, me and Auntie would have the
house all to ourselves. And whenever me and Auntie were
alone together we’d sit on the couch, sucking on candies,
Auntie reading her mysteries and me reading whatever
historical romance I was into at the time.
When Brother and Daddy were finally ready to go, Brother
swung open the front door and rushed out into a choke of
cloud caused by the fire heating the wet ground. Daddy
shrugged into his peacoat, grimacing with pain. When he
got back home, I told him, Auntie would make him a remedy
to get the damp out of his bones. “Okay, Daddy?” I said.
But Daddy said nothing. His eyes were that icy blue they
got when they were looking off to that other place, the
place that turned him empty inside. The place he thought
he could fill with dice and whisky.
When he stepped out onto the porch, he turned first one
direction, then another, squinting into the gathering fog
like something was out there to get him. Brother beckoned
from where he stood near one of the boreholes in the
street, the long pipe smoking as it vented out of the
ground. Brother waved his little knit hat that he’d
crushed in his hand, but Daddy jogged down the steps,
hands thrust deep into his coat pockets, and walked away
Ma thrust her head over my shoulder and yelled, “And pick
up some milk for god’s sake,” but her words sunk in the
heavy air. Sighing the way she always did before heading
off to the mill, she tilted her head. Gleaming in her
eyes was something as timid as a baby deer. Every now and
then the shy, tender part of her surfaced. “I know you
want to go reading with Auntie,” Ma said to me. “But
don’t forget your chores. Don’t go having no fun first.”
“Yes, Ma,” I said, but as soon as the door closed behind
her, I headed to the kitchen and brewed a pot of tea.
When me and Auntie were alone together, before we settled
down to reading, we always sipped a cup of tea and Auntie
told me things she’d never told anyone else.
That morning me and Auntie sat on the sofa and sipped a
peppermint tea that we’d picked and dried ourselves.
“Listen now,” Auntie said. “Remember our family picnics
at Culver Lake? And the afternoons we all spent ice-
skating on Adam’s pond? Weren’t they fun?”
I nodded. Auntie knew I loved it when Ma and Brother and
me hunted crayfish along the lakeshore or when Daddy and
I skated backwards across the pond with Ma doing figure
eights around us.
Auntie put a finger to her chin and looked off toward the
window. From the way she opened and shut her mouth
several times I could tell she was searching for the
right words. “And then there were all the times when
something good happened out of the blue. Like when your
ma found fifty dollars just lying on the ground or when
your poem was chosen best in class. You know what I mean?
If you only think about what’s bad, well then, life’s
bad. You see what I’m saying?”
I smiled and stirred my tea, tapping the spoon dry on the
edge of the cup. I had no idea what Auntie was getting
at, but I always wished to please her. I lifted the cup
to my mouth.
Auntie continued, “I guess what I’m trying to say is that
even though both my boys were killed, one on Okinawa, the
other in the mines, I don’t believe in the family curse.”
Shocked by her words, I gulped the tea, burning my
tongue. The curse was as real and basic as sunlight or
water. I couldn’t imagine our lives without it. Scalded,
my tongue felt puffy as I said, “How can you say that,
“There isn’t a family curse,” Auntie explained. “Or
that’s not exactly what I mean. There is one. But it’s
not out there,” she said, pointing out the window. “It’s
in here.” She aimed a thick, slightly crooked finger at
me and prodded my chest.
“Inside me?” I said, pulling at the cable knit of my
sweater as if the curse was hiding somewhere underneath
Auntie sighed. “Not just you. Inside each one of us. You
see we make—” But Auntie was cut off by an explosion deep
in the ground and she completed her thought by saying
something in Ukrainian that I knew was a bad word because
she’d said it before and would never tell me what it
meant. The explosions were something we’d gotten used to
because they happened sometimes in winter when the
outlets the fire used for air froze over, but Auntie was
clearly thinking about the damage the explosion might
have caused. She stood and said she’d check on the shed
that, with each explosion since Christmas, had started
tilting farther toward the left, slowly sinking like an
absurd shed-ship into the ground. I didn’t see what the
bother was. It was an ugly shed and we didn’t even store
anything worthwhile in it, but I’d learned not to stop
Auntie from checking on it. That crumpling old shack
meant something to her.
Not bothering with a coat, Auntie tramped through the
kitchen and banged open the porch door. Through the
little window over the sink I watched her walk the gravel
path. Flakes of snow so small they resembled ash wafted
down around her. I spread some of Auntie’s elderberry jam
on a heel of bread and stood at the counter working my
jaw hard to chew it. When I next glanced out the window,
the snow had so thickened the fog that I couldn’t see a
thing. Absently I began peeling the potatoes Auntie and I
had planned to boil for supper. I’d been reading a book
about Anne Boleyn, the second wife of King Henry VIII,
who was said to have had an extra finger. I wondered if
she’d used that extra finger for a special purpose, like
playing the harp or picking locks, and I tried to picture
the various ways it might have grown out of her hand—
directly out the side or stuck like a twin to her pinky.
I reasoned that if I were a king an extra finger would
interest me since I’d probably be bored by everything
ordinary. It wasn’t until I’d nearly finished peeling the
potatoes that I realized Auntie hadn’t returned.
“Auntie?” I shouted through the sliver of screen visible
where the window was open. There was no answer. The
flecks of snow had thickened to flakes that had a tinge
of yellow to them. The color was odd and pretty all at
once and I couldn’t decide if it reminded me of something
sick or of something lit up just barely by sun. Dying
light, I decided, remembering a poem Auntie had read to
me. And then I got afraid.
Slowly I made my way onto the sunporch. With just a push
on the back door, it opened wide and I gagged on the
sulfur smell the fire sometimes caused. I stared toward
the corner of the yard where the shed stood, but the air
was so steamy I could only see a few feet in front of me.
Fear cracked my voice as I called, “Auntie? I can’t see
Cautiously I took first one step, then another, the fog
growing hotter. “Auntie?” I called again, my voice now a
squeak. I took a few more steps and then just stood there
gawking at the gaping hole where the corner of the yard
used to be. For what seemed like forever I stood there
silent, when I could have been shouting for help, when I
could have been saving Auntie.
It wasn’t until flames burst up from the pit that the
first scream escaped my throat. I screamed to Auntie I
screamed to the fire. I screamed so that God would have
to hear, would have to listen.
I don’t know for how long I stood there, but by the time
a fireman picked me up, my mouth was as dry as dust and
hardly any sound came out. “She’s gone,” he said. “The
ground gave way.” He carried me out the alley to the
front yard, my skin singed from the smoke, my eyes
“My fault,” I whimpered.
“No,” he said. “There was nothing you could do. Hush
But I knew it was my fault. Already I knew. It was my
fault because Auntie had told me the curse’s secret—that
it lived inside each one of us—and for that the curse had
taken her away.
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