BookBrowse Reviews The Secret Wisdom of the Earth by Christopher Scotton

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The Secret Wisdom of the Earth

by Christopher Scotton

The Secret Wisdom of the Earth by Christopher Scotton X
The Secret Wisdom of the Earth by Christopher Scotton
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2015, 480 pages
    Paperback:
    Jan 2016, 496 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs
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Set in Appalachia, this debut novel explores weighty issues such as loss, grief and poverty through the eyes of a fourteen-year-old boy.

Christopher Scotton's debut novel The Secret Wisdom of the Earth is a coming-of-age tale set in the Appalachian coal country in 1985. The story, narrated by an adult Kevin Gillooly recalls the summer his life changed, when he was 14 years old. Along with his mother, Anna, the teen has recently witnessed the horrific death of his three-year-old brother, an experience which left Anna nearly catatonic and Kevin emotionally damaged and guilt-ridden. The novel begins as the teen Kevin and Anna travel to Medgar, Kentucky, to spend the summer with Kevin's grandfather ("Pops") at the old family homestead; their family hopes the quiet atmosphere there will help each of them heal.

There are many elements of the novel that I absolutely loved. Scotton's depiction of small-town life and a young boy's experiences in an unfamiliar environment are utterly charming and affected me deeply. Early on, Kevin encounters Buzzy, a worldly-wise boy his own age who takes Kevin under his wing. The interactions between the two friends as they discuss life in Medgar are pitch-perfect. Kevin relays the first day they met:

We stayed there...talking about everything all afternoon. The way toenails go hard after they've been clipped; the way dust clings to spiderwebs like dew; spit and the specks that float in your eye when you look at the sun a certain way; scorpions and Hissy Pillsucker, who would strip to her underwear for twenty-five cents; breasts and moles with hair, and Chucky Dingle, who had only one nipple. How wood feels in your hands when it's wet; how to carve a whistle from green willow; what the ocean must look like; what horses smell like after rain.

Reading such prose, one can't help but smile at the innocence of youth and feel nostalgic for one's own childhood.

Kevin's relationship with his larger-than-life grandfather is also dead on and quite touching at times. I frequently found myself beguiled by the author's images, gentle humor and by the interplay between the characters, so many of whom I found endearing, memorable and unique. Kevin, Buzzy and especially Pops feel remarkably real and Scotton has gotten each character's voice exactly right. I was especially impressed by the several instances of grieving and recovery, each of which is incredibly convincing. Scotton's writing is exceptionally evocative — not only does he really help readers "see" the scenes he sets, he's got a superb ability to convey realistic dialog. With most of the novel being a low-key Bildungsroman, I wouldn't have been surprised if it dragged in places, but the overall pacing is also good.

Although I definitely enjoyed the novel, I did have a couple of issues with the plot. First, the author tackles a number of very large themes, some more successfully than others. In addition to the coming-of-age and grief/recovery aspects – which were without question expertly conveyed – he explores mountain-topping (an environmentally destructive means of coal mining, see 'Beyond the Book'); what defines integrity and how one develops it; the importance of memory and one's links to the past; nature vs. nurture; and the impoverishment of Kentucky's rural citizens. Some of these latter themes aren't well developed, inserted more as an afterthought or an expansion of the novel than keys to the overall points the author seems to be making.

Especially disappointing is a plotline that devolves into an overblown action-adventure sequence that is utterly unbelievable and, in my opinion, just plain silly. I suspect it was included to add a little excitement to what would otherwise be considered pure literary fiction with a limited audience, but in trying to appeal to the masses, I think the author weakened the overall plot. This wasn't a deal-breaker for me – so much of the rest of the book was top-notch that the overall affect wasn't completely spoiled – but it certainly was enough of a buzz-kill.

Despite its flaws, I consider The Secret Wisdom of the Earth to be a little gem of a book, and have thought about it often, which is always a good sign. It's got so much going for it that I think most will be willing to overlook the novel's weaknesses and will find many reasons to appreciate it in the end.

Reviewed by Kim Kovacs

This review was originally published in July 2015, and has been updated for the January 2016 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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Beyond the Book:
  Coal Mining: Basic Overview

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