To say that Christopher Scotton's The Secret Wisdom of the Earth
is a coming-of-age story wouldn't be wrong but would distill this
beautiful, many-layered novel to only one plane. Scotton's don't-miss
debut touches on much more, including the environment, prejudice,
family, love, socioeconomic issues, and friendship.
What's it about? In 1985, Kevin Gillooly, along with his mother, spends the summer with his grandfather, hoping to find peace and healing after the tragic death of his much younger brother. While Kevin harbors guilt (the result of his father's insensitive comments), and his mother seems lost to a bottomless depression, Pops and his housekeeper, Audy Rae, offer them patience, kindness, love, and tender care.
But small-town Kentucky is not exactly the quiet place that fourteen-year-old Kevin had imagined it would be. In the face of economic collapse caused by the closing of the underground coal mines, local politics and tempers run hot. Even as the beauty of the mountains and woods seeps into Kevin's bones, the boy learns that desperate times drive grown men to ugly deeds. By summer's end, fear and violence have erupted, forever staining those pivotal months in Kevin's life.
Among the layers. The more familiar Kevin becomes with Medgar, Kentucky, the more he comes to realize that a small town is made up of many kinds of people, some of whom only barely tolerate each other. The economy is on the top of the list of local concerns, as dishonest entrepreneurs buy up land and rights-of-way so they can blast off the tops of mountains to get at the coal, promising prosperity to one and all. More than just the scenery is marred, however, as family homes, wilderness areas, and waterways are destroyed in the path of progress. All kinds of hate and intolerance rise to the surface, fueling the fires of aggression.
What I loved. So many scenes have stuck with me from The Secret Wisdom of the Earth: Pops and his men friends sipping bourbon on the front porch, talking politics into the hot summer nights. Kevin and his new friend Buzzy exploring the woods, camping out, and helping each other through hard times. Kevin accompanying Pops on his veterinary rounds and developing the skills to be an assistant. Kevin's confusion and hurt over his mother's withdrawal. The colorful citizens of Medgar, who eke out a living in the hard-scrabble hollows or the local shops. And, of course, the moments of violence that shocked me as much as they horrified Kevin.
Recommendations. Christopher Scotton's The Secret Wisdom of the Earth sits in a special place in my heart. His characters became so real to me, I had to remind myself that I was reading fiction. The book is told by Kevin in retrospect, and it sometimes felt as if he were talking directly to me, as friend would tell a story. From Kevin's tender, sensitive descriptions of the people and places that were so important to him as a boy, I became emotionally invested in him and the events of that summer.
The language is absolutely gorgeous, and I love the way Scotton uses words; I often found myself pausing to savor his style. Here's just one sentence:
Black and white photos of the family and the hollow storied the off-white walls.Whether writing about the typical, goofy antics of teenage boys or the horrors carried out in the name of greed and intolerance, Scotton perfectly captures each scene. I know I'll reread The Secret Wisdom of the Earth many times over the years, and I know the emotional impact of Scotton's prose will not weaken.
Audiobook. I listened to the unabridged audiobook edition (Hachette Audio; 13 hr, 32 min), read by Robert Petkoff. Look for my full review at AudioFile magazine, but in the meantime, do not hesitate to pick up this stellar, brilliantly read audio.
Published by Hachette Book Group / Grand Central Publishing, 2015
Source: Review (see review policy)
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