The Secret Wisdom of the Earth has been compared to To Kill A Mockingbird (for its small town aura), Cold Mountain (for its gorgeous descriptions of mountainous nature) and Flight Behavior (for presenting the reader with environmental information in the context of a page-turning novel.) Scotton’s writing has further been compared to that of Mark Twain and John Irving.
14-year old Kevin and his mother Anne arrive from Indiana to spend the summer at Anne’s father’s house in Medgar, Kentucky, deep in coal mining country. Kevin’s younger brother died in a tragic accident, and his father hopes that he and his mother will benefit from time away at Anne’s childhood home.
“Pops,” Anne’s father, is the revered town veterinarian. He enlists Kevin as his assistant, taking him in and out of the rural hollers to treat animals of all kinds. Kevin makes friends with a local boy, Buzzy Fink, who introduces Kevin to swimming holes, hiking trails, and long standing country traditions. Pops takes the boys on a ritual two week “tramp” through the mountains, during which time they will live off the land, and fend for themselves. The three of them face unexpected obstacles on their journey; roles switch as Kevin and Buzzy take their turns as the hero.
Several subplots simmer beneath the surface of this coming of age/journey novel.
Mining has long been a source of jobs in Medgar, but the new method of coal mining, which involves literally blowing the tops off of the mountains, has pitted the locals against each other. Set in 1985, the story also addresses the small town resident’s attitudes toward homosexuality. Mr. Paul has grown up among them, and everyone has known that he has a special relationship with his housemate. When Mr. Paul organizes locals in protest against the mountain top removal of coal, things get ugly, and his personal life is exposed in public.
I recommend this book for so many reasons. It is old fashioned story telling at its best: the book spans one summer without jumping back in forth in time, or using multiple narrative points of view. Christopher Scotton’s powers of description are amazing, his characters vivd.