“The Secret Wisdom of the Earth” by Christopher Scotton (Grand Central, 476 pages, $26)
So many debut novels hit just one note. Coming of age. Small-town life. Adventure. Generational bonding. Social consciousness. How marvelous to start the year of reading with Christopher Scotton’s big-hearted “The Secret Wisdom of the Earth,” which has a marvelous blend of all these themes.
After the death of his younger brother, Kevin and his depressed (nearly catatonic) mother head to the Appalachia hometown of her childhood for the summer. At the moral center of the novel are his grandfather, Pops, the wise veterinarian, and Buzzy, the friend he meets from a few hollers away. This is a whole new world for 14-year-old Kevin.
In the world created by Scotton, Appalachia is more than verdant or hardscrabble. It’s a place of contradiction and contrast; ruthlessness coexists with beauty, danger and evil. Medgar, Ky., is coal town, and Scotton writes with deep understanding about how the mines eventually got played out and the impact of mountaintop removal. He is unflinching in his depiction of those suffering – dying – from black lung and slurry.
This is a town with a deep history, and one in which lies live enough to harden into truths and the past becomes slurry, and the victims of the mines become evil and hostile themselves. This is a suspenseful novel, and one of its themes involves the local hairdresser and some of the anxieties and hostilities that arise from his status as a “bachelor gentleman.”
While Kevin narrates the novel, he does so from the perspective of time, when he returns to Medgar as an adult, with his own children. “I’ve thought about it often in the years since that first summer in Medgar, and I’m no closer to understanding how evil can be both numbingly complex and so astonishingly simple at once.”
Evil may defy understanding, but in that inquiry into evil, this lovely novel brings readers closer.