Daily Book Review: 'The Secret Wisdom of the Earth'

By Carolyn Darr, Daily Arts Writer
Published January 14, 2015

In its most guarded heart of hearts, Christopher Scotton’s debut novel “The Secret Wisdom of the Earth” is about the detrimental effect of kept secrets and their ability to destroy those around them. Its protagonist, 14-year-old Kevin Gillooly, learns about the complexities of love and the vastness of nature one fateful summer in the Appalachian mountains.

The Secret Wisdom of the Earth

Christopher Scotton
Grand Central Publishing
January 15th, 2015

The novel begins with Kevin and his mother moving back to the family homestead headed by patriarch “Pop” in the wake of the horrific death of his younger brother. Reduced to a husk of her former self, his mother is practically non-verbal, leaving Kevin to deal with his perceived responsibility for the tragedy.

Kevin is quickly drawn into the politics of Medgar, a small town in Kentucky. Historically a coal town, it’s veins have dried up and a new form of mining called mountaintop removal has begun. This practice involves completely leveling the once proud mountains that defined the town and the surrounding area. When one of the main protesters and close friends of Kevin’s grandfather is brutally murdered, an intricate mountain of deceit and lies builds up and blasts apart in the small town.

Through his novel, Scotton confronts male love of all different kinds. The relationships between two men, two childhood friends and a grandson and grandfather are all examined, shining light on the many ways men depend upon and cherish each other. Underneath the main plot, Scotton also inspects the harsh realities of coal mining and its detrimental physical and economic effects on those who partake in it. “The Secret Wisdom of the Earth” gives a fictional account of the real disparity that can be witnessed in forgotten towns across the rural United States. A once rich enterprise, coal mining has progressively slowed down, leaving many families in its literal dust.

Above all else, “The Secret Wisdom of the Earth” implores readers to cherish the natural world. His new friends see Kevin as a city boy, with no practical knowledge of the earth. Through the help of his grandfather and friend Buzzy, he learns to interact with and appreciate the natural wonders contained in the mountains surrounding the small town. He comes to understand why his grandfather will never sell the family land and how the earth can contain not just soil, but living memories.

Scotton constructs beautiful and thoughtful prose that truly paints vivid pictures for readers. As Kevin traipses through the wilderness, readers can picture the beautiful landscape he witnesses. Unfortunately, at times, the lengthy novel can drag and readers are given somewhat unnecessary information. While Kevin’s work as a veterinary assistant helps readers recognize his maturation and character growth, many may not be interested in the intricacies of castrating a bull.

Additionally, though the focus of the novel is on secrets, many of these seemingly deep and dark mysteries are actually quite transparent. By halfway through the novel, readers can probably guess both the murderer and the ultimate ending. That being said, “The Secret Wisdom of the Earth” does what it sets out to do in its examination of love and loss in small town Kentucky.