Bold in concept and design, The Secret Wisdom of the Earth (January 2015) by Christopher Scotton is a sweeping coming-of-age epic of loss, guilt, love, friendship, violence, and, eventual, redemption. Setting his debut novel in 1985 in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky when mountaintop removal was rampart and uncontrolled, Scotton metaphorically juxtaposes the hurt and violent devastation in people’s lives with the wanton, violent devastation of nature. It is, in essence, a virtual tour-de-force, covering many aspects of life in the rural village of Medgar, financially devastated by the closing of underground coal mines and morally violated by the onslaught of strip mining.
Tragically uprooted from his home in Indiana, fourteen-year-old Kevin Gloolily and his mother spend a recuperative summer with her father, Arthur Bradley Peebles, the local veterinarian in Medgar. Told reflectively in the first person, Kevin’s narrative of his relationship with “Pops” and the solace of a burgeoning friendship with Buzzy Fink, a half-wild backwoods boy, spans the long summer months suddenly rent asunder by a cruel act of violence. Already shaken by past loss and guilt, Kevin comes to grips with the harsher realities of life and the stark, true nature – both good and bad – of human beings. As he forges fledging steps toward adulthood, Kevin is faced with many personal and community challenges as he discovers new truths about himself, life, and others. Finally, in a searing denouement, he fights the forces of nature to unselfishly save his grandfather.
The Secret Wisdom of the Earth is packed with a multiplicity of themes, conceits, and subplots all centered amid Kevin’s adventurous experiences and maturing thoughts and musings. It is an action-packed novel, not without a few very touching, tear-inducing moments. While, however, a solid, robust read, Scotton’s literary debut does have its flaws. Besides the occasional grammatical and typographical errors, there are a few disjointed, misplaced narrative passages that jarringly disrupt the continuity. In some, it is hard to differentiate who is “talking” and/or what is being related. This is especially true of italicized “entre-actes” that distract with pseudo-poetic prose. Also, the ending is too long and drawn out. If, as the publicity notes state, the last chapter is intended to capture how Kevin’s teenage experiences affected his adult life, it short-handedly missed the mark. Lastly, while Scotton is in many respects a mesmerizing writer, his prose is often a bit too preachy and sometimes too flowery, force-fed with needless adjectives, contrived similes, and literary aphorisms.
These deficiencies are, however, mostly overshadowed by Scotton’s innate talent for storytelling. This is a great cabin-in-the-woods-by-the-fire read; a vigorous, forceful, full-bodied sweepingly imaginative, masculine novel that not only reinforces (after pulling it asunder) one’s faith in mankind and the powers of friendship and redemption, but unmercifully tugs at the heartstrings with its in-depth insights into the souls of both man and earth.
Reviewed by June J. McInerney
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