Carbondale native Jerry Palko reviews the new book "The Hollow Ground" by Natalie S. Harnett

Several books about Carbondale have been published in recent years, all but one "cut and paste" photo books, as they are called in the trade. (You assemble a bunch of vintage photos, add captions, stick them in a book, put your name on the cover and claim you to be an author when in reality all you are is a scrapbook assembler.)

Another way to become an "author" is to write a book that publishers won't accept because it is  poorly written so you pay to have it printed. This is called "vanity publishing," for obvious reasons: it assuages your ego.

But now a legitimate publisher – St. Martin's Press, which pays authors an advance and royalties and promotes the book with a profit motive -  has issued a book whose story takes place in Carbondale - sort of.

It's called "The Hollow Ground," a first work of fiction by Natalie S. Harnett, a graduate of Columbia who has written published award-winning poetry.

The town where the tale is centered is called Barrendale, an early name for the settlement which became Carbondale. And the title refers to an underground minefire, which is familiar to most Carbondaleans because at mid-century the excavation of a minefire resulted in the loss of nearly a quarter of the community.

But its not just the Carbondale fire: Harnett melds this with the more devastating underground mine fire that devastated Centralia.

I read the advance copy of "The Hollow Ground" and Harnett has filled it with interesting characters, lots of detail and an excellent sense of time and place, all written in compelling prose.

Any Carbondale resident who was alive during the minefire era will experience deja vu while reading this book.

The action occurs in 1961 and the central character is 11-year old Bridget Howley whose family, a proud Irish-American clan, is forced out of their home by a minefire. Entwined in all of this is a murder mystery.

This is a coming of age novel, a family saga that takes place in a an economically and disadvantaged region of the anthracite coalfields. Area residents will recognize Harnett's references to coal miners, black lung, Irish priests and such.

Harnett says she came up with the idea for the book after becoming familiar with Carbondale as a young child whose grandfather lived in the Poconos.

"It was back then in my childhood years that my desire to write about Carbondale formed. There was something about the city's steep, narrow streets and large, often dilapidated, homes that intrigued me."

She added that the inspiration for the novel didn't hit her until years later, and when it did she wanted to set the novel in Carbondale. She began  conducting research – some of it at Carbondale Historical Society - and interviewing people, from which she about local clothes, customs and world views. All of which helped her form the characters in her book.

Although her story takes place more than half a century ago, she sees the current controversy over fracking in northeastern Pennsylvania gives it relevance.

"The Hollow Ground," which took Harnett three and a half years to write, has received rave reviews. One compared it to the dramas of Eugene O'Neill. Another called it "a painful and powerful story of love and survival." And still another called  it delicious reading."

This story may not be everyone's cup of tea. But the local angle should interest everyone in Carbondale whose mind is capable of handling more than the drivel that dominates the boob-tube.

Marie Zaccone, librarian, says she expects to have a copy at Carbondale Public Library.

It would be a huge plus if the author made a personal appearance at the local library. While here, she might be surprised at the terrific transformation Carbondale has undergone under the leadership of Mayor Justin Taylor.

Carbondale native Jerry Palko is a retired journalist.