The Secret Wisdom of the Earth by Christopher Scotton

Secret Wisdom of the EarthWhen Christopher Scotton’s The Secret Wisdom of the Earth was acquired, the software company CEO-turned-debut author was given a low five-figure advance, and the novel — a project Scotton had been toiling over for 15 years — a modest first print run of 25,000. In an interview with Publishers Weekly, Scotton’s editor hinted at her initial concern that the quiet, coming-of-age tale set in the Appalachian backwoods would be “hard to publish.” But then something almost unheard of in the publishing industry happened: Sales reps from around the country started rallying behind the book — loudly and unanimously. The groundswell of support became so convincing that Grand Central bumped up the marketing budget and upped the print run to 100,000 copies.

Having just plowed through The Secret Wisdom of the Earth, it’s easy to understand all the (well-deserved) fuss. With its hardscrabble setting and cast of burdened characters hemmed in by seemingly insurmountable circumstances, the violent and wonderfully tender novel speaks not only to a bevy of America’s centuries-old troubles — the destruction of our natural environment, pervasive unemployment and economic inequality, endemic racism and prejudice — but also to our frustrated yet ardent attempts at fixing them.

At the heart of this bittersweet story is Kevin Gillooly — a 14-year-old who journeys from Indiana with his mother to spend the summer with his grandfather “Pops” in Medgar, Ky., a rural coal-mining town where childhood nicknames tend to stick and neighbors insert their noses into other people’s business. Hot on the heels of the gruesome death of Kevin’s 3-year-old brother and a guilt-ridden two months spent tiptoeing around a father who blames him for the accident, the best Kevin and his aggrieved mother can hope for is a healing change of scenery.

But Kevin’s struggle to become whole again by traipsing through lush forests “Lord of the Flies”-style with his newfound friend Buzzy Fink and listening to wise ol’ Pops unspool his family’s history night after night while sipping moonshine on the porch of his Southern Cape Cod isn’t the only crux of the story. As the adult Kevin recounts the series of tragic events that transpired during that summer of 1985, a dark portrait of a town infested with pockets of redneck hatred and greed unfolds.

You see, Medgar — like many places dependent on a volatile industry — is defined by paradoxes. For one, there’s Bubba Boyd’s Monongahela Mining Co.’s controversial mountaintop removal program — a more efficient way of extracting coal that keeps an already crumbling town afloat. “[If] we are gonna create jobs for Medgar folks, we gotta dig at it from the top,” Boyd explains in a Town Hall meeting. “You want work, it’s gotta come out of the mountain.”

In Medgar’s other camp there’s Pops and longtime resident Paul Pierce, who argue that blasting the sacred place they call home to smithereens devastates the environment and takes advantage of poor landowners forced to depend on mineral rights for survival. “People don’t care about experts,” Pops fires back. “They care about black water coming out of the faucets up in Corbin Hollow. They care about their neighbors getting sick from all this crap in the water.”

Then there’s the matter of bigotry. When Paul Pierce’s homosexuality is used as a means to discredit his anti-mining stance and he’s brutally beaten in an alley outside Miss Janey’s Paris Hair Salon, where he works, Pops jumps on another opportunity to teach his grandson right from wrong. A poignant lesson, sure. But Kevin can’t help but think of an earlier conversation he had with Pops, one that convinced him that, sadly, most folks don’t even know the difference. “Evil doesn’t have to be loud, son,” Pops told him. “In fact, it reserves that for the merely boorish. Evil is quiet, stealthy — it sneaks up on you, smiles, and pats you on the back while pissing down your leg.”

At nearly 500 pages, The Secret Wisdom of the Earth is full of gorgeously rendered, intricately interwoven story threads (a few too many to spoil here, though Kevin’s multi-day camping and fishing trek into the hollow and over the mountains that culminates in a death-defying rescue is downright riveting). But it’s Scotton’s clear love of and respect for his subject — and his refusal to rely on clichés when describing Appalachia’s humble people, their trials or their successes — that makes the novel so surprisingly uplifting at times, and profoundly rewarding.

In the end, a 25,000 initial print run would have suited The Secret Wisdom of the Earth just fine. But given the promise Scotton’s novel demonstrates, four times as many copies, dare I say, is the much wiser choice.

Originally ran in the San Francisco Chronicle (March 11, 2015)

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