THE SECRET WISDOM OF THE EARTH by Christopher Scotton has received a great deal of pre-release accolades – all well deserved. I suspect, however, the spell it cast over me is a bit different than the one cast for others, mainly due to my own geography and relationship to mining. (Not in Kentucky and not coal mining, but in southern Arizona where copper mining “is king” as was quoted recently in our local paper over a mining ‘victory’ that will scrape away sacred Native American land.)
This debut is a fabulous coming-of-age story about 14-year-old Kevin, who bears witness to a horrific family tragedy and upon going to Kentucky to live with his grandfather, “Pops,” does a great deal of growing up. In many ways, the story reminded me of the popular Stand By Me film (originally a Stephen King novella titled, The Body) in its depiction of a simpler life and boyhood friendships (Kevin falls in with local Hollow kid, Buzzy Fink). But while Kevin is introduced to the slower pace and spiritual connections of the earth, he is also witness to the ravages of coal mining on the environment. And to the brutal ignorance of members of a small town.
This book is cocooned in so many layers of moral/ethical/environmental themes, yet it is not in any way preachy. It does what today’s journalism should do: it presents an unbiased, two-sided story illustrating that the world’s appetite for natural resources isn’t cut-and-dry. It’s one of many themes tucked neatly into Kevin’s journey, through the lives of multigenerational mining families and opponents who appear in the story as flawed and realistic characters. Mining presents a fitting backdrop that parallels the personal loss suffered by many of the characters within this book.
In THE SECRET WISDOM OF THE EARTH, Scotton has created a novel that entices readers to think – one that challenges the “it’s ok as long as it’s not in my backyard – or as along as I can’t see it” mentality toward large-scale mining operations – all in a way that is not the least bit overbearing.
During an extended mountain trip with Pops, Kevin is explaining the wild beauty of the mountains surrounding him: “The trees were lush and large, with holly, mountain laurel, and dogwood filling in the forest floor.” And then he notes the sight as they come toward the evidence of mountaintop-removal mining: “As we came over a gentle rise, the trees ended abruptly. What lay before us was a scene of unimaginable devastation.”
Midway through this whopping 480-page book, I had already decided it was going to be passed along to my 14-year-old nephew: for its wisdom, for its introduction to the redemptive nature of nature (a concept completely foreign to so many young people today) and for its entertainment value (Pops has some good one-liners).
Yet for all of the environmental takeaways I personally experienced, THE SECRET WISDOM OF THE EARTH is just a GOOD story: a book offering lessons of hope and forgiveness, acceptance and tolerance, loyalty and trust.
If you are a fan of young adult fiction (while the story is a recollection of an adult Kevin looking back, it reads in his 14-year-old point of view until the very end), and enjoy coming-of-age stories, this is the book for you. Could it have been shorter? Sure. But despite its heft, it is a quick, satisfying read with true substance. I look forward to Christopher Scotton’s future work. Bravo to this debut author!
Original version published at Goodreads. Reposted, in full, with permission of the author.