It's 1961, and after a family tragedy rocks her life, Brigid Howley, along with her mother, father, and little brother find themselves living with her strong-willed grandmother and sick grandfather. What follows this move, in Natalie S. Harnett's debut novel, The Hollow Ground, is a coming-of-age story set in the Anthracite region of Pennsylvania. Through a grisly discovery, young Brigid must not only come to terms with her fragile homelife, but her family's past as well.
What first attracted me to Harnett's novel was the setting. Set against the backdrop of the underground coal mines in eastern Pennsylvania, the very idea that the world could give out underneath the characters' feet at any moment (and does, in some scenes) adds to the tension in the story. Furthermore, the coal mining history is imperative to both the plot and the character development. Coal seems to seep through the very pores of the characters' skin and certainly, there are places in the book, where I know that the characters actually have coal veins in their bodies.
Still, as I read Harnett's book, I became so enveloped in the characters' lives, that I almost (I say almost because it is impossible to totally disregard the sense of place in this book) forgot the setting and instead focused on the characters' struggles, hopes and dreams. The main character, Brigid, is appealing -- sharp and brazen, she is determined to find her way through her sullen surroundings. In general, all the characters, both Brigid's family members and her friends, are flawed and not always likeable, but that makes them even more realistic in this gritty world.
Harnett's book is inspired by the underground mine fires of Centralia and Carbondale. I say inspired because the book starts in 1961, one year before the start and/or discovery of the Centralia fire. Thus, a reader who knows the history of this particular incident should not enter the novel thinking that the author is retelling the story of this specific coal fire. Instead, she is incorporating the symbolism of what an underground mine fire does -- devours silently, only flaring at times when the conditions are right.
A great first book by Natalie S. Harnett -- I am eager to see her follow up works. For more information on The Hollow Ground, see Harnett's website, which features samples and background information.
We need more poetry about the world of waitressing. I'm saying this as a former waitress (I was a lousy waitress, by the way) and as a lover of Jan Beatty's waitress poems, a favorite being "A Waitresses' Instructions on Tipping or Get the Cash Up and Don't Waste My Time." This is why I was happy to find Waiting at the Dead End Diner by Rebecca Schumejda.
In this book, the poet enters the Dead End Diner as a waitress. While I am always hesitant to say that the "I" in any poem is the poet, in this case it's probably true, since the book synopsis says that while Schumejda was working on this book, "she put her apron back on and waited tables, discovering that her respect for the industry is unwavering." Throughout this collection, the reader meets the waitresses, the cooks, the regulars, and even the boss of the Dead End Diner, all the while exploring both the workplace and the personal trials and tribulations of her characters.
Certainly, some readers would say that the focus of this collection is on the work of the restaurant industry, and in some ways, this is true. Many poems display the day-to-day work of waitresses balancing trays and busboys cleaning off tables. Others tell more specific stories. In one poem, "The Leaf Pepper Special" we learn that the waitresses encourage customers to order the cook's special "a butternut squash soup/a hamburger with American cheese/and red velvet cake with chocolate icing" because Rick has promised a twelve-pack "for the waitress who sells the most." In other poems, we learn the distasteful task of dealing with rude customers (a normal part of a waitress's job, I am afraid). One image that has stuck with me is found in "Tip" where the narrator lists some of the strangest tips she has ever received including "scratch-off lottery tickets, two shiny/pennies left heads up, a handful of/condoms, a golden hundred dollar Monopoly bill" but then ends her list describing a truck driver who talked to her about missing his kids, and then leaves her "a twenty for listening and a/tiny tooth nested on a coffee spoon."
Still, it's the people who take center stage of this collection. We meet Carlos, who busses tables in order to get his wife and children to the United States. We meet Rick, the cook, a brash man who shouts racist comments but also has a secret life as a cross dresser. We meet Kitty, a regular who "always wears shirts adorned with cats/and white laceless tennis shoes with/handmade Puff Paint kitchens on the front." We meet Maggie who has been a waitress for so long that she considers herself "tough as razors." We meet the owner's wife, whose presence disrupts the kitchen so that "either scatter to the darkest corners/ like roaches or buzz around like bees." Indeed, this collection could easily be read as a novel in verse, with the main character navigating a single story line throughout the book while exploring both the outer conflicts of the setting and the inner conflicts of the characters themselves.
Schumejda's poetic language is blunt and sometimes, harsh. At first glance it may seem that Waiting at the Dead End Diner lacks the lyrical line found in much of the music of today's poem. But then, the reader will realize that there is music here: it's the hard edge of working-class life that sings with a stubborn but hopeful melody all of its own.
In many ways, I am more of a reader than a writer. This page will serve as a home for my informal reviews of what I've been reading.