Sunday, February 7, 2016

Review: The Hollow Ground by Natalie S. Harnett

I picked up this book from Audible purely because of the setting and the fact that I'm somewhat fascinated by Centralia, Pa, which is what I thought it was based on. It's creepy, and I love the whole "ghost town" aspect of it, and the fact that it's been the basis for horror settings like Silent Hill just makes me even more fascinated by it. But I've never been there. I've lived in the Anthracite Coal region of Pennsylvania since 2004, and have visited some of the historical sites of that industry (Concrete City, the Mauch Chunk Museum in Jim Thorpe, the Anthracite Museum in Scranton, and used to drive past this abandoned coal breaker every day for work... etc), but though I only live an hour or so from Centralia, I haven't yet been to see the town, or what's left of it, for myself.

In fact, until right now, I thought Centralia was unique in being, you know, on fire. I came all gung-ho to this review to talk about how many liberties this author took with just setting towns on fire for dramatic settings for her book... You know, something like: "How much of the state did she think was on fire? Because it seems like 'all of it' is the appropriate answer - at least three different fire zones?? Come on..." and here is the point where I have to admit that, no. I'm the ignorant one. According to this article from 2014, there are currently 8 moderate to serious mine fires in my county and the neighboring county directly north of me, and if a comment on that article is to be believed, there are as many as FORTY-FIVE fires throughout the state.

Let me reiterate that in case you blinked and missed it. That's 2014. Two years ago.

And Google, EVER so helpful, informs me one of those fires is just a few miles from me, in a town called Laurel Run. That's been burning since 1915, and caused the entire town to be demolished and relocated in the 60s until it was contained in the 70s. And I could WALK to it right now. I can practically see it from my house and ohmyshit IT'S STILL ON FUCKING FIRE.

Thanks Google. So much. Really.

Well, shit. On the bright side, since I'll never sleep again, I guess I'll get a lot more reading in.

OK, I'll stop being dramatic and actually talk about the book a bit. So, like I said, I picked this up because of the setting. I listened to a sample, and the first line hooked me, and the cover didn't hurt either. I REALLY wanted to like this book. I wanted it to be creepy because of the setting, and heartbreaking, because what else COULD it be? And I wanted it to be well-written and historically accurate (or at least close) because, even though I didn't grow up here and have no roots here, I love the history of the area and wanted this book to represent that history well.

In other words, I set myself up for disappointment.

It's almost not fair to rate this book because of the high expectations I had. (Though when has that stopped me before?) In this case, it just fell short for me. I think, possibly because of the interest I had in the setting, it is almost like this should be rated on two different levels. The setting, and the story plopped down on top of it.

So let's talk about that. I live in this area, and so, perhaps, I have a bit of an advantage when it comes to picturing it. I could see the mountains and the valleys as I listened, and I know many of the actual real-life towns mentioned (Wilkes-Barre, Scranton, Allentown, etc), though I can't say that I know how they'd have been in the 60s. I know the way the light shines through the trees, and how the snow falls, and how different the area looks in each of the seasons. (Not so pretty now, mid-winter with no snow to cover the brown and dead trees, but in a few weeks, or in the fall, it will be one of the prettiest areas you could find.)

I know the pride that people have in their homes and land here, so it's not hard for me to imagine people staying despite the ground beneath them burning, despite poisonous gases seeping up through their basements and homes, despite the risk of cave-ins and sinkholes, etc.

The setting, I think, was OK... but it still felt like it was given short shrift. I wanted area and the time and the peril to be a character on its own. I wanted it to feel alive and real... And to a point it did, but I think that much of that was me projecting my knowledge of the area and its history onto the info given in the book. I brought more to it than it offered me, if that makes sense.

The story felt detached from the setting. Which is odd because it was tied so closely with the mines, specifically THESE mines, and tried to be more meaningful than it was. Brigid, the main character and narrator, knows quite a bit about mining because her daddy and uncle and grandpa were miners, and she's grown up in it. Her grandpa is dying of the Black Lung, and her uncle died in the mines during a cave in - one in which her father was also injured.

But the story around the family and its secrets felt like it was separate from the area. I wanted a profound tie, something that would be unique here, something poignant and interesting, and instead it was the same kind of story I've read a thousand times before, only set in the Pennsylvania Anthracite region. It felt... cheap. I wanted the story and the setting to meld, to be parts of a whole... but if you take the setting away or change it to anywhere else, the story wouldn't change that much. Just the details. I was disappointed by that.

That being said, the family story was well-written. I liked the characters and feel of the story, even though it was massively predictable. As I listened to this while driving to Pittsburgh and back, I called events and revelations well before they were revealed in the book.

I did like the circularity and the familial themes in the book, though. I liked how the title can both refer to the literal ground, and also familial foundation. I liked that it was somewhat realistic in that things don't always work out to be a happy ending.

Also, I liked the writing, for the most part. This is a beautifully descriptive book, though maybe a bit too much so, given the fact that an 11 year old girl is narrating it. It just felt a bit too... precocious. Especially given the way the brother is depicted. He seemed to be somewhat mentally or developmentally disabled, seemingly unable to form full sentences even at nearly 7 years old (and actually, the only things I remember him actually saying are "No!" and "Want home."), yet here's his sister describing things like this:

  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.
And this:

  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.

What eleven year old thinks or talks like that? I get that she's smart, and reads historical romance and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (a book I've seen this compared to - I see what you did there.), I still don't think that THAT kind of descriptiveness fits.

I'm a little ambivalent about the mystical aspect of this book. This is an Irish Catholic family, and they believe they are cursed. Brigid also becomes friends with a Puerto Rican girl who believes that she can see spirits. This is interpretable as being superstition and mysticism, or you could take it literally, if you were so inclined... I wasn't. I thought that it was a little trying on my patience. I would have liked the story to live strictly in the realm of the real. This aspect of the story felt out of place and distracting. It was almost like, because the main character is a young girl, the story didn't know what it wanted to be, and kept losing itself in this "fantasy" realm. So for the most part, I just rolled my eyes and waited for the story to move on.

Finally, because I need to wrap this up... I did not like the reader of the audiobook. She did that "little girl" voice that I freaking HATE. It annoys me that audiobook producers think that stories narrated by young girls (or teens, or young women) have to sound like they are 8 years old. The voice doesn't match the personality. Brigid is strong, independent, intelligent, and insightful. She's not a vapid little girl, so I found it annoying as hell that she was read that way. I didn't like the way that some of the adults were read either. All of the grandmother aged women sounded alike. All of the mother aged women sounded alike, except for Ma, and that was only because Ma was given so much description of her tone and expression and personality that to read her in the way the other women were read would be completely out of character. But all of the other women sounded "southern gentlewomanly". Makes sense, because the reader, Luci Christian, is from Texas. But that's not at ALL how accents around here sound. Aggravating. I really wish that they'd have gotten someone from the area (or at least who would understand the dialect) to read this.

Anyway... Overall, I liked this. I'm not disappointed that I spent an Audible credit on it, but I did want a bit more out of it. I think that, for the right kind of reader, this could be a great book. And for a debut, it's definitely not the worst I've read. (Well that sounds like a shining endorsement, doesn't it? LOL)

OK, in summation... I have a fair amount of complaints, but when I wasn't able to listen to this, I was thinking about it, so that's a good thing, right? I'm going with 3 stars for that, but if I drop it down to two in the coming weeks or so, I think that would be fair, too.

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