Published by Grand Central Publishing
Publication date: January 6th 2015
Genres: Coming-of-age, Debut, Fiction
When Kevin’s little brother is killed in a freak accident he and his mother go to her father’s house for the summer to try and recover. Kevin is wracked with guilt about his part in the accident or, at least what his father tells him was his part. His mother is a wraith, the life sucked out of her, leaving her emotionally comatose. Her father lives in Medgar, Kentucky, deep in the Appalachians and it is hoped that getting far away from their home and its memories will give both a chance to heal. The Secret Wisdom of the Earth by Christopher Scotton is both a coming of age story and one that encompasses broader social and economic themes, all bound together by the natural world.
Scotton populates Medgar with an assortment of characters. There are the backwoods farmers and miners who eke out a subsistence life and have no interest in or knowledge of what goes on the larger world. There is the coal company’s family, all of whom has profited mightily from mining and are now embracing the mountaintop removal as a cheaper and more efficient way to get at the coal. This despite the fact that it has not only decimated the landscape of the Appalachians but has also destroyed the local economy. Then there are the landowners who are faced with pressure to sell their land to the coal company but are torn between the money and the destruction of their land. For decades these groups have lived in a quiet acceptance of each other but the summer when Kevin arrives an act of terrible violence throws all their loyalties into question.
The themes in The Secret Wisdom of the Earth may not be the most untouched but Scotton gives them a freshness that makes the novel tremendously appealing. At fourteen Kevin is not only moving through the rapids of the teenage years but is doing so without his father and so his grandfather, Pops, becomes his harbor. The character of Pops is one of the finest in the novel, a man of quiet wisdom and common sense. He takes Kevin and his new friend Buzzy on a trek to the family’s land deep in the woods, forcing them to forego every convenience they’ve grown-up with and rely on their own strength. Even amongst the difficulties they experience the last days of childish joy at the simple things found in nature. By writing of the untouched beauty of the hills and lakes that surround them Scotton highlights just how tragic their loss is. For me, these were scenes so well described they left me with a yearning for nights that are truly dark and so clear you can see the stars. They also meant that when a mystical element was introduced at the same time I found it to be unnecessary and a little disappointing. The realities in The Secret Wisdom of the Earth are more than enough to carry the story. Still, Scotton’s ability to punctuate the serenity of nature against the violence of man makes this a strong debut.