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Book Review

‘The Secret Wisdom of the Earth’

1/21/2015

Christopher Scotton has published a splendid debut novel, a coming-of-age story as devastating as it is hopeful. Scotton’s story takes us to the mid-1980s to the small, impoverished coal-mining town of Medgar, Kentucky. Kevin Gillooly, 14, has just moved there with his mother. His grandfather, Arthur “Pops” Peebles, invited them to stay the summer in the hopes it would help them heal from a horrific accident that killed Kevin’s 3-year-old brother.book

As Kevin’s mother languishes in bed in the throes of grief, he experiences the freedom and beauty of the surrounding hills and hollows. He meets Buzzy Fink, and their friendship and adventures help ease Kevin’s trauma and guilt. Pops, wise and respected among the townspeople and dealing with his own loss, helps guide Kevin through his grief and the rupture of his family. He boosts Kevin’s confidence by taking him out on his veterinarian rounds and letting him be a part of the regular evening whiskey-sipping gatherings on his porch or around the stove at the general store in town.

Mr. Paul, a dear old friend of Pops and a local businessman scrutinized by most for being gay and for leading the movement against the strip mining that others in Medgar depend on for jobs, is violently murdered. The brutal attack rattles the town, and Buzzy, who witnessed the crime, holds his secret close.

In the aftermath of Mr. Paul’s death, Pops takes Kevin and Buzzy on his annual weeks-long “tramp” to the hollow where he grew up. They experience the beauty and history of the area and the astounding ravaging of it as they see the age-old mountains leveled by strip mining. Deep in the wilderness, they are attacked by an ominous figure, and their survival comes to depend upon Kevin’s strength and resourcefulness.

A thrilling and intense story, it is very believable and ultimately optimistic. Scotton shows how love and respect can help restore one ransacked by loss of loved ones, of sense of self, of land and history. Expertly developed characters and their pitch-perfect voices and an insightfully described sense of place offer an authentic, graceful rendering of southern Appalachia by a talented new novelist whose admiration for the area and its people is obvious. CV

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By Christopher Scotton
Grand Central Publishing
Pub Date: Jan. 6, 2015
$26
480 pp

Fay Jones was born with a love of literature, which was finely shored up throughout her early years by her parents and a beloved children’s librarian who wore the thickest glasses ever manufactured. Jones once won a coupon for a free ice cream cone after her suggestion for a name for the local Reading Is Fundamental mascot was selected.

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