When life hands you lemons one of the best cures is to read a book that’s both tart and sweet just like a glass of lemonade served on an old-fashioned southern porch. The Secret Wisdom of the Earth is just such a novel. Debut author Christopher Scotton opens the story with these assuredly simple, yet evocative words: “The Appalachian Mountains rise a darker blue on the washed horizon if you’re driving east from Indiana in the morning. The green hills of the piedmont brace the wooded peaks like sandbags against a rising tide. The first settlers were hunters, trappers, and then farmers when the game went west. In between the hills and mountains are long, narrow hollows where farmers and cattle scratch a living with equal frustration. And under them, from the Tug Fork to the Clinch Valley, a thick plate of the purest bituminous coal on the Eastern Seaboard.”
Fourteen-year-old Kevin Gilooly takes the reader back to the summer of 1985: “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.”
So Kevin’s father drives Kevin and his mother to Medgar, Kentucky, the small coal town where his mother grew up. Everyone hopes that the town and Kevin’s grandfather, known as “Pops,” will heal them. Pops is a veterinarian, a man almost universally respected in Medgar. He’s a true hero, as courageous when standing up for what’s right as he is tireless in handling large animals and climbing up the face of vertical rock. Kevin also finds a friend in Buzzy Fink, a kid from the hollows with problems of his own. Pops says, “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.”
As Kevin heals while assisting Pops on veterinary calls and listening as Pops’ friends banter over sour mash on the porch, controversy brews. Boyd, the evil owner of the local mine, a mine that employs a large number of the men in the area, is buying up land surrounding the town next to the National Forest. He’s already destroyed the “knobs” or tops of two mountains and poisoned drinking water nearby. Now Paul Pierce, a local businessman has information that can stop him so Boyd attempts to smear Pierce by announcing that he’s gay. To most of the town, this isn’t news but to some having it out in the open is trouble. When Pierce is brutally attacked, the question isn’t whether Boyd had anything to do with the crime, but who he used to do the deed. Soon new facts surface and Kevin and Buzzy worry.
Pops takes the boys on his annual “tramp” to climb, explore, fish, and camp the land that’s been in his family for generations. After an almost mythical climb and a dangerous creek crossing the boys feel safe, strong, and confident.
While Pops and Buzzy sleep, Kevin encounters the “The White Stag” – a legendary creature that even Pops has never seen. The imposing stag had “kind, sad eyes that seemed to carry with them the secret wisdom of the earth.” It’s that wisdom that forms not only the book’s title but also the novel’s basic tenets – wisdom comes from being attuned to nature and from knowing ourselves and our capabilities. Soon Kevin and Buzzy will need their newly found confidence to escape a dangerous sniper hell bent on hurting one of them.
Summing it Up: If you enjoyed the mystical landscape of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, the Southern gothic feel and characters in Ron Rash’s Serena, or watching a town and a boy fight evil in Wiley Cash’s A Land More Kind Than Home, then The Secret Wisdom of the Earth will have you holding your breath as you make it down the mountain alongside these authentic characters. It’s a debut novel and there are some credibility-defying actions so the book isn’t perfect but it’s quite simply an old-fashioned good read.
Rating: 4 stars
Category: Fiction, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Grits, Book Club
Publication date: January 6, 2015
Author Website: http://christopherscotton.com/
Interviews with the Author: http://christopherscotton.com/watch-a-reading/
Reading Group Questions: http://www.readinggroupguides.com/reviews/the-secret-wisdom-of-the-earth/guide
What Others are Saying:
Chicago Tribune: http://www.chicagotribune.com/lifestyles/books/ct-books-editors-choice-secret-wisdom-earth-20150115-story.html
Kirkus Reviews: https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/christopher-scotton/secret-wisdom-of-the-earth/
New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/18/books/review/the-secret-wisdom-of-the-earth-by-christopher-scotton.html?_r=1
Publishers Weekly: http://www.publishersweekly.com/978-1-4555-5192-7