The Secret Wisdom of the Earth

by Christopher Scotton

(Grand Central Publishing, $26, 480 pages)

Who is this author?

According to biographical information on his website and LinkedIn, Christopher Scotton has been many things: a carpenter, bouncer, kite flyer, amusement park ride operator, venture capitalist and CEO of several technology companies. For a time he lived in London to run the European operations of a technology publishing and tradeshow firm and is now president & CEO of ClearEdge3D, Inc., a software company whose technology, it says, can vastly reduce the cost of creating 3D CAD models of industrial plants, buildings, bridges and entire cities. This is all well and good, but what interests us here is his debut novel, The Secret Wisdom of the Earth, which has the good fortune of being favorably compared to Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird just as that classic book is enjoying renewed interest.

What is this book about?

This wistful and dramatic novel, like Mockingbird, involves violence, death, prejudice, injustice and friendship in a small Southern town of the Appalachian variety; a mining town in Kentucky, where big business is raping the beautiful land by removing mountaintops and filling in hollows to get at the coal. It is told through the eyes of Kevin, 14, whose little brother has died accidentally. Kevin and his mom have fled to spend a summer in the hilltown of Medgar with his granddad, a veterinarian active in a local movement to save the mountaintops from the coal company’s ravages. Kevin makes a friend of Buzzy Fink, who schools him in the ways of the woods and witnesses a hate crime involving a gay man who had been quietly accepted by the town until his environmental activism inflamed his opponents. This is a coming of age story that combines contemporary problems with bedrock issues of love, loyalty, grief and redemption.

Why you’ll like it:

Scotton’s book, the story of a boyhood recounted by the man he has become, is tenderly written and has a gripping plot. Here is what Scotton has said about how he wrote it:

“I completed about half of the novel in London—fleshing out those characters, their relationships and the loss each of them suffers—but something was clearly missing from the story. The various plot paths I needed to tie everything together turned out to be nub ends.

“I moved back to the States and immediately went down to eastern Kentucky in hopes of breaking this narrative logjam. It was on this trip that I saw my first Mountaintop Removal operation.

“The horrific gray scar of that mine brought back the sense of sickening loss I’d had at fourteen when the pristine woods I’d grown up in were cut down, hauled away and replaced with tract housing. I knew then, looking out over this massive, denuded landscape in Kentucky, that the eradication of these proud ancient mountains was a fitting allegory for a loss that all of the main characters suffer. Once I connected these themes, the rest of the story began to bubble forth.

“My trips to Kentucky, talking with folks and listening to their stories, showed me that the apologue of Mountaintop Removal is a complicated one—one that can’t be reduced to simply good vs. evil or rich vs. poor. The geography of this beautiful region makes for an economic hairball and the many decent people who inhabit it are forced to choose from a short list of bad options. I tried to portray this hard-bought paradox and lay it alongside Kevin’s story in a compelling way.”

What others are saying:

“A deeply moving story about human cruelty and compassion…wonderful…This book reminded me a little of Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ “ says The Oklahoman.

Kirkus Reviews, in a starred review, says: “Debut author Scotton sets a captivating modern morality tale in Kentucky’s coal country, 1985. With the small-town aura of To Kill a Mockingbird, a man reflects on the summer he learned that tradition, greed, class, race and sexual orientation can make for murder. Multiple stories are at play in the coal town of Medgar: Bubba Boyd, the boorish son of a coal baron, is raping the landscape; local opposition leader and popular hairstylist Paul Pierce’s homosexuality is used to attack his environmental position; and the narrator, Kevin, grieving the death of his younger brother, arrives at age 14 to stay with his widowed grandfather. With a mother trapped by depression and father subconsciously casting blame, Kevin’s left alone in grief’s pit, and it’s Pops, a wise and gentle veterinarian, who understands his pain and guilt. In Medgar, mines are played out, and Boyd’s Monongahela Energy digs coal by “mountaintop removal,” pushing forested peaks into verdant valleys, leaving a poisoned landscape. Scotton’s descriptions of plundered peaks like Clinch Mountain, Indian Head and Sadler, Pops’ boyhood haunts, are gut-wrenching. As Kevin tags along on vet calls with Pops and befriends a local teen, Buzzy Fink—”fresh friends from completely different worlds faced with the hard shapings of truth and deceit”—Scotton explores both the proud, stoic hillbilly culture that accepts Paul’s “bachelor gentlemen” love and the hate-filled greed wielding the Bible as a weapon in service of ignorance and Mammon. And then Buzzy witnesses a brutal killing, a murder whose ramifications may cost Cleo, his brother, a prestigious college football scholarship. With glimpses of a mythical white stag and mad stones symbolic of the land’s capacity to heal, Pop, Buzzy and Kevin “tramp” to an isolated lake and find themselves targeted in a Deliverance-like shooting. Scotton offers literary observation—”a storm was filling the trees with bursting light”—and a thoughtful appreciation of Appalachia’s hard-used people and fragile landscape. A powerful epic of people and place, loss and love, reconciliation and redemption.”

The Amazon Debut Spotlight of the Month review for January 2015 says: “This earnest debut is part coming of age story, part tale of redemption and part Greek myth played out in the holler. After the horrific death of his younger brother in an accident on the lawn, 14 year old Kevin Gillooly and his distraught mother seek healing in the rural Kentucky home of his grandfather. There, Kevin – who is suffering from survivor guilt at the very least – meets up with a local boy, Buzzy Fink; the two embark on the kind of Huck Finnish boyhood adventures – fishing, hunting, hanging out in the tree house – meant to be wholesome and soul-cleansing. But this rural Kentucky town is rife with bigotry and rage, and soon Kevin and Buzzy are drawn into local politics that involve a mountaintop clearing project and the death of a local gay man who had opposed it. There are unabashed good guys, like Kevin (who has a bit of a pyromaniacal tendency, which could have been more thoroughly developed) and his “Pops,” a gruff old man who charms with remarks like “I’ll take another bullet before I eat any more of this hospital slop.” There are some very very bad guys, like the townsperson who murders his neighbor because of his own not unexpected issues. And then there are the guys – like Buzzy and Kevin – who find their characters forged and burnished by one particular hike this particular summer, the summer “when we left the coverings of boy behind,” as Kevin puts it. Readers might recognize something in the tone and style and plot; take one virtuous man, one redneck town and two scrappy, interesting kids. Add in the narration by a boy now all grown up. And you’re just begging for comparisons to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. And yet, Scotton’s very earnestness, the obvious love he has for this particular bit of land, and the perfect ear for its youngsters’ dialogue (“She smiled at me and I almost lost breakfast”) make this novel his own. At once familiar and modern, it is always poetic and compelling.”

In The New York Times Book Review, author Daniel Woodrell writes: “The first half of The Secret Wisdom of the Earth moves with the leisurely pace of summer, but the second half is a page turner featuring masculine challenges, bloodshed and stoic survival. Some of the challenges Kevin and Buzzy encounter strain credulity, but they edge us toward myth, stretching for something larger than verisimilitude. Scotton’s prose is colloquial and evocative; the descriptions are sharp, the voice down-to-earth…[Scotton] should be congratulated on is his willingness to tell a new story in an old neighborhood, to draw characters who are thoroughly human, and to create a story that leads to terror and redemption, love and survival.”

Says Publishers Weekly: “Scotton’s accomplished debut is the story of Kevin Gillooly, a 14-year-old boy who moves to coal country and learns about courage and violence, beauty and danger, from his wise, weathered grandfather and a best friend well versed in backwoods survival. Kevin’s mother brings him to her hometown of Medgar, Ky., after the death of Kevin’s three-year-old brother. Kevin’s grandfather Pops is a large-animal veterinarian and hires Kevin as an assistant. Pops also introduces him to books like Treasure Island and gives him time off to explore the surrounding mountains with his friend and confidant Buzzy Fink, who teaches Kevin how to use slugs to treat spider bites and other survival skills. Kevin sees land destroyed by mining, hears exploding mountaintops, and feels the fly-rock, while Buzzy witnesses the beating of gay hairdresser and anti-mining activist Paul Pierce. Both Kevin and Buzzy are tested during a camping trip with Pops, when an unknown assailant tracks them down and opens fire in the wilderness. Scotton’s cast of classic Appalachian characters also includes housekeeper Audy Rae, Cleo the high school football hero, the violent and inbred Budget family, and an array of old men shooting the breeze at Hivey’s. The coming-of-age story is enriched by depictions of the earth’s healing and redemptive power. Neither the first portrait of mining country nor the most original, Scotton’s novel nonetheless makes for compelling reading when the action grows intense—managing, like the landscape it describes, to be simultaneously frightening and beautiful.”

When is it available?

You can dig this one up at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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