My review of The Secret Wisdom of the Earth first appeared as a Maximum Shelf issue at Shelf Awareness. I am posting it today for non-crime Monday with their permission. You can also check out my interview with Christopher Scotton here.
First line: "The Appalachian Mountains rise a darker blue on the washed horizon if you're driving east from Indiana in the morning."
Making his fiction debut with an ambitious coming of age novel, Christopher Scotton paints the Appalachian region and its people with a reverential brush. Using their flaws and charms to highlight and shadow the work, Scotton produces a masterpiece in The Secret Wisdom of the Earth.
Leaving Indiana for Medgar, Kentucky, fourteen-year-old Kevin Gillooly and his mother try to escape the horror of an accident that took the life of Kevin's younger brother. His mother is non-functional with guilt, and Kevin is battling his own trauma plus the weight of blame from his father.
Medgar offers Kevin a freedom he hasn't known before and one he desperately needs to survive the suffocation his family's loss is creating. He wanders the countryside with his new friend Buzzy Fink, discovering both the beauty and the hostility of a land that means everything to his grandfather, Arthur "Pops" Peebles. As adult Kevin narrates the story he fondly recalls, "Off we'd go, breaknecking the hills and plundering the hollows where the compounded guilt and grief I felt would fall away like original sin at a baptismal."
Through this small backwoods town in Kentucky, Scotton sketches a rainbow of humanity. Using natural--and often humorous--dialogue, vivid descriptions and authentic behaviors, he populates Medgar with a colorful cast Kevin meets as he assumes the role of assistant to his large animal vet grandfather. While most in Medgar are poor, this is the least of what defines them. For example, "'The Finks are poor, but they're proud poor. Esmer runs the hollow hard. Kids stay in school; they truck their garbage out once a week. These are solid people.'" Contrast them to the Budgets who "'generally don't go to school past the tenth grade; they live off the land, get handouts, and work the mines and odd jobs to make up the rest. They've been living in this hollow for almost one hundred years, marrying each other and having each other's babies. The gene pool is getting a bit shallow.'"
And with the diversity of people comes a diversity of issues: racism, hate crimes, poverty and the issue that symbolizes them all, mountaintop removal.
Coal mining has been a way of life in Medgar for many years, but instead of tunneling into the earth, the coal companies now remove the tops of mountains through explosions, leaving the landscape ripped open and scarred. For part of Medgar's residents, including Pops and Paul Pierce, this is a travesty that must stop. It's not only erasing the physical land but the history of Medgar's people: the acid rain created from coal dust erodes the headstones in the graveyards.
One Medgar resident bemoans, "'We are talking about mountains that have been here for ten thousand years. Mountains that have defined us for generations... and now three are gone.... they are not coming back.... Ever.'" And Pops points out "'People don't care about experts; they care about Betty Dodger being a widow.... They care about black water coming out of the faucets up in Corbin Hollow. They care about their neighbors getting sick from all this crap in the water.'"
As dark as Scotton daubs mountaintop removal into his picture of Appalachia, Kevin's narrative reveals the other side as well: the struggling families who have no other way of making a living in the harsh, elevated landscape. Their mineral rights and land ownership are all they can leverage. Still, Pops and Paul work to rally the Medgar citizens against the mining companies and the decimation of Kentucky's mountains.
The division between the factions intensifies during that summer of 1985. A series of violent crimes rock the town with more force than one of the mountaintop explosions and as the investigation stalls for lack of evidence, Kevin learns the hard truth in Pop's words, "'Evil doesn't have to be loud, son. In fact, it reserves that for the merely boorish. Evil is quiet, stealthy--it sneaks up on you, smiles, and pats you on the back while pissing down your leg.'"
The death of Kevin's brother, the wounding of nature and the crimes that happen in Medgar are all brutally dark and ugly, yet The Secret Wisdom of the Earth is splendid and hopeful. Scotton's undeniable love and awe of this region shine through as he painstakingly portrays strokes of beauty in man and nature.
While camping Pops teaches Kevin about the "courtesy pile" of firewood. And when Kevin wants to know what if people don't do their part, Pops' response is "'Well, somebody's gotta be first, don't you think? Just imagine what would happen if we all left a place a little better than we found it.'" This advice carries a multitude of meanings in the book, but it also reflects what Scotton has done with his debut novel. He's left the literary world a little better than he found it.
The Secret Wisdom of the Earth will be available from Grand Central Publishing January 6th in hardcover (ISBN: 9781455551927). There will also be an unabridged audio (ISBN: 9781478986874), narrated by Robert Petkoff, available from Hatchette Audio and Blackstone Audio