Thursday, September 24, 2015

Review: The Secret Wisdom of the Earth by Christopher Scotton

A book club friend of mine raved about this book to me. I admit I was skeptical about the story even when she read aloud a beautiful passage. Appalachian tales are not generally in my wheelhouse. I looked at the jacket copy. "An act of violence" is one phrase that makes me run in the other direction, about as fast as possible. I checked out the cover art. It looked a little new agey or maybe washed out, dull with the watercolors. It just didn't call to me. I wasn't sold. So I had decided that I was probably not going to read this one when it showed up on my doorstep and demanded to be read. The universe obviously didn't agree with my decision. And I have to say I am so glad to have been over-ruled!

Fourteen year old Kevin and his mother move to Medgar, Kentucky for the summer to try and heal from the terrible tragedy of his younger brother's death. His father blames Kevin, his mother has retreated into herself, but his grandfather, into whose home they land, while also grieving, can see the bigger picture and can comfort this grandson who has to shoulder so much. As Kevin makes a local friend in Buzzy Fink and spends time with his wise and thoughtful grandfather, he slowly starts to become a regular teenager again. But if Medgar is healing Kevin, it is also a place where everything is changing. Long a mining community, now in the 80s, strip mining has come to Medgar, razing the tops of mountains, polluting the water, and raising tensions in the town between those who argue for the environment and protection of the mountain hollows and those who want the influx of jobs and money that this type of mining brings. The town can be short-sighted, bigoted, and narrow-minded but the situation, the need to create jobs to sustain the townsfolk, is a complicated one. When a local man, loved by some and reviled by others because of his homosexuality, who was very vocal about the underhandedness of the strip mining operation is murdered, tensions spill over and both good and evil and the difficult areas in between are exposed to Kevin, affecting him in ways he never could have predicted.

This novel was completely engrossing and hard to put down. Scotton beautifully draws small town Appalachia in the 80s and the competing concerns of living in such a place. He manages to raise moral, political, and social issues without preaching, wrapping a heart warming grandfather and grandson relationship story around such troubling things as homophobia and mining rights; the concepts of guilt, blame, and forgiveness; the hopefulness of healing, both of an individual and a community; and the value of the long, slow process of justice. Kevin is a sympathetic character and his friendship with Buzzy is wonderful. Pops, his grandfather, is magical, a touchstone for his hurting grandson. The tension and fight in the novel is personal, which makes it all that much more dangerous to everyone involved. The writing is richly descriptive, drawing the reader into the place both physically and in terms of its character and that of the people who inhabit it. The story is told retrospectively by an adult Kevin looking back at that formative summer but adult Kevin still captures the effect that events had on teenaged Kevin in such a way that the reader forgets that it isn't being narrated in the present. That Scotton offers no easy answers for the issues he raises and manages to create sympathy for several characters the reader wants to despise is a real testament to his talent. A beautiful coming of age tale, this is one not to be missed.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book for review.

1 comment:

  1. I did not want to read this one, either, until I met Scotton. He convinced me. Then I was convinced again when Sandie said it was good. Now, you. What am I still doing without a copy?


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