WE HAVE MOVED! If you are joining us, please join us at our new home, The Coil, over on Medium.

If you have arrived at a broken link, please go to The Coil and start your search over.


The Hollow Ground

336 pages
5.74” x 8.52” Hardcover
Also available in ebook and audiobook formats
ISBN 9781250041982
First Edition
Review Copy: Hardcover
St. Martin’s Press
Thomas Dunne Books
New York City, New York
Available HERE
Review by Eric Shonkwiler

The Hollow Ground tells the story of a family (and families) savaged by troubles big and small. The Howleys, mostly coal miners, are hounded by, they believe, a curse, cast upon them by a priest who was beaten by their Molly Maguire forefather. In truth, the Howleys are a typical family living in coal country: they’re poor, hungry, and beaten by their work. Put a few generations of any family through that same tumbler, and you come out with people who are hateful, spiteful, vengeful. The Howleys are no different. The narrator of the story is Brigid, at the outset a curious and intelligent twelve-year old, who bears witness to the mounting troubles of her mother and father, and his mother and father, as the family curse and the curses of others come down on them.

Set in Pennsylvania’s rich anthracite coal fields long after the boom years of the World Wars, The Hollow Ground shows the reader a proud region in decay. In addition to poverty and unemployment, the people of the book are continually at risk of losing their homes to the collapse of the very earth from below them—the hollow ground of the book’s title. Like the infamous Centralia, the coal fields in Hollow Ground are aflame, and the fires are spreading inexorably. Gases seep up from the earth, snow turns to fog before it lands, and basements become so hot they melt bootsoles. This setting gives the book a wonderfully original and interesting backdrop: from the edges of the pits themselves, to the distant fires that turn mountains red, to the abandoned buildings and lots inside the hazardous “fire zone,” these are locales you don’t see often in fiction—or anywhere else.

Despite the hellish setup, the book moves along at a decidedly human level. The Hollow Ground’s drama is composed of slights and grudges, and as they begin to pile up, the dynamic of the Howley family buckles until it finally snaps. To be too explicit gives away quite a lot—this is a book of little secrets, too, each held with the wonder and import of a child. The plot becomes rather delicate because of this, sometimes easy to predict and at others maddeningly fleeting. At times the story will veer, to the chagrin of the reader, to a new plot thread that slows the pace. Ultimately, this is true to the nature of the book—told by a young girl, following the troubles set right in front of her. And Hollow Ground’s characters are nothing if not real; they are difficult, complicated, and hard to root for. This makes the author’s job more difficult, but in the end, it also makes the story of The Hollow Ground all the more brave. The sagest advice from out of any character comes near the end, when Brigid’s grandmother tells her, regarding Brigid’s mother: “All she can do is love the best she can. That’s all you can ’spect from her, girl. For the rest of her life, for the rest of yours.” And this simple platitude, if digested properly, might have averted half the tragedies of the novel. But that’s life, whether you’re a coal miner or a child of. The Hollow Ground understands the distance a single turn, a single decision, can make from your life’s original course. That’s more than can be said for most fiction, and most people.

Eric Shonkwiler is the author of the novel, Above All Men, chosen as a Midwest Connections 2014 Pick by the Midwest Independent Booksellers Association. He received his MFA in Fiction from University of California​-​Riverside as a Chancellor’s Distinguished Fellow and ​was recently selected as a New River Gorge Winter Writer-in-Residence.

• This book was submitted to Alternating Current by the publisher. The reviewer does not know the author or the publisher personally and received the book from Alternating Current at random. • Permalink • Tag: The Volt •

No comments: