Grand Central Publishing: 1/6/2015
eBook, 480 pages
After witnessing the death of his younger brother in a terrible home accident, 14-year-old Kevin and his grieving mother are sent for the summer to live with Kevin's grandfather. In this peeled-paint coal town deep in Appalachia, Kevin quickly falls in with a half-wild hollow kid named Buzzy Fink who schools him in the mysteries and magnificence of the woods. The events of this fateful summer will affect the entire town of Medgar, Kentucky.
Medgar is beset by a massive Mountaintop Removal operation that is blowing up the hills and back filling the hollows. Kevin's grandfather and others in town attempt to rally the citizens against the 'company' and its powerful owner to stop the plunder of their mountain heritage. When Buzzy witnesses the brutal murder of the opposition leader, a sequence is set in play which tests Buzzy and Kevin to their absolute limits in an epic struggle for survival in the Kentucky mountains.Redemptive and emotionally resonant, The Secret Wisdom of the Earth is narrated by an adult Kevin looking back on the summer when he sloughed the coverings of a boy and took his first faltering steps as a man among a rich cast of characters and an ambitious effort to reclaim a once great community.
The Secret Wisdom of the Earth by Christopher Scotton is a very highly recommended multilayered coming-of-age tale that incorporates many other themes.
It is 1985 and 14 year old Kevin Gillooly has moved with his mother to her hometown of Medgar, Kentucky to stay with her father after the death of her other son, Kevin’s three-year-old brother. Kevin's mother is still in mourning and in a deep depression. Kevin's father cruelly blames Kevin for the accidental death.
"It had been two months since my brother, Joshua, was killed, and the invulnerability I had felt as a teenager was only a curl of memory. Mom had folded into herself on the way back from the hospital and had barely spoken since. My father emerged from silent disbelief and was diligently weaving his anger into a smothering blanket for everyone he touched, especially me. My life then was an inventory of eggshells and expectations unmet.
Pops, my maternal grandfather, suggested Mom and I spend the summer with him in the hope that memories of her own invulnerable childhood would help her heal. It was one of the few decisions on which my father and grandfather had ever agreed."
Pops, Kevin’s grandfather, is a veterinarian, concentrating on large animals now. Kevin is introduced to good books and hired as an assistant by his astute, perceptive grandfather. Kevin also meets Buzzy Fink, a friend who helps Kevin explore the woods and mountains and tells him some of the local legends and introduces him to folk medicine.
If The Secret Wisdom of the Earth simply covered Kevin's healing it would still be an insightful coming-of-age story, but Kevin's recovery is a small part of the story. Much like life, the novel is much more complex than that. Medgar, Kentucky is also a long time coal mining area. Currently the rich coal veins in the mines are played out, but Bubba Boyd's Monongahela Mining Company now retrieves coal by mountaintop removal, a practice that requires blowing up the mountain and leaving a destroyed and poisoned landscape behind. Boyd is trying to buy up land from the locals. Paul Pierce, a local hairdresser and environmental activist, is aggressively trying to stop Boyd when Boyd uses Pierce's homosexuality to attack him personally. The fight becomes personal, lethal, and much more complicated. Adding to these storylines are the descriptions of the local small town and hillbilly culture.
The Secret Wisdom of the Earth is an exceptional debut novel. The coming-of-age story is seamlessly blended into the narrative that also shows how people can be manipulated and public opinion swayed when they don't have the meddle to stick to their convictions. Scotton weaves a story that encompasses loss, love, tradition, greed, empathy, and redemption, while showing the importance of nature and the path of a confused boy turning toward becoming a wise man.
The writing is excellent, descriptive and powerful. The writing will capture your attention and the story will hold it until the narrative reaches a point that you will be utterly compelled to keep reading in order to find out what happens next. Scotton manages a few surprises along the way, but he also concludes the novel nicely, setting the characters in the present, looking back at that summer of monumental changes.
Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of Grand Central Publishing for review purposes.