Every successful fiction writer knows the secret to keeping readers turning the pages is to increase the stakes. "Get your hero up a tree," the old adage goes, "and then throw rocks at him." Sophomore novelist W. Dale Cramer is an expert at throwing rocks.

Jeremy Prine, the 17-year-old protagonist of Bad Ground, has the wind kicked out of him early in life. His father is killed in a mining accident when the boy is only 10. When his mother dies of an undefined illness that eats up the family's meager savings with hospital bills, the teenager finds himself with all his belongings in a duffel bag, $63 in cash and a cryptic letter from his dead mother encouraging him to find his uncle Aiden.

Obeying his mother's last wish, Jeremy hits the road, thumbing his way from the hills of Tennessee to the hardscrabble territory of hard-rock miners in South Georgia. In a series of unfortunate encounters, he manages to lose what few possessions he has left before he finally finds his uncle at the Sweetbriar Creek Water Pollution Control Plant. Uncle Aiden, aka "Snake," is a wily, bad-tempered, hard-rock veteran. Badly burned in the same accident that claimed Jeremy's father, Snake is both physically and emotionally scarred. His world is the "hole," and when he is not in it, he is holed up in his apartment seeking absolution in a bottle. Jeremy is just as emotionally stunted, having been shielded from life by an overprotective mother after his father's death. The man and the boy make an uneasy peace as they both struggle toward reconciliation with their pasts, and their futures.

The lush landscape of South Georgia jars against the harsh beauty of the subterranean world of the hard-rock miners with satisfying clarity, and Cramer makes masterful use of both dialogue and description to get across his message of love, forgiveness and brotherhood in this intriguing coming-of-age novel.

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