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The Secret Wisdom of the Earth by Christopher Scotton

March 23, 2015

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This much-praised first novel is the story of 14-year-old Kevin Gillooly, who moves with his mother from Indiana to the small Appalachian town of Medgar, Kentucky after his younger brother dies in a horrifying accident. There he meets a whole cast of characters, including Pops, his wise and well-read grandfather, and Buzzy Fink, a quirky, likable boy who tramps around the backwoods with a cross-bow pistol. He and Buzzy become fast friends, and they both learn valuable lessons from Pops as they come of age.

There are other storylines— Buzzy’s older brother’s attempt to quarterback his way to a college scholarship and escape the town, the fight against the strip-mining company that’s defiling the natural beauty of the region, and an episode of shocking violence against a gay couple in town—that all weave together with varying degrees of success.

Scotten’s greatest strength is in describing the natural scenery. There are quite a few stunning lines and memorable moments. I love when Kevin, who is enamored with what he sees as his quaint life in Medgar, realizes that other kids his age want nothing more than to escape the small town. Or when, late in the book, he and Buzzy come upon a cemetery with no inscriptions on the headstones. Pops explains that the blasting from the strip mining operation blows sulfur dioxide into the air. The chemical settles on everything, and when it rains, the mixture becomes sulfuric acid, which eats away at the countryside—the plants, the animals, the homes, the tombstones. It destroys everything, “even the memories.” It’s a great image.

One reviewer praises The Secret Wisdom of the Earth as an “Instant American classic.” Another compares Scotton to Harper Lee and Ernest Hemmingway. A very high bar indeed. After reading those reviews and the blurb describing the general plot, I would have bet money that I’d be a fan. Unfortunately, I thought the book was a nice big swing, but didn’t come close to delivering.

It may feel like an American classic, but I think that’s because it’s derivative of American classics. Both in plot and theme, it’s a mix of Huckleberry Finn, To Kill A Mockingbird and Deliverance. A generous critique might call it ambitious, but I found it scattered and uneven. Is it an ecological treatise? An examination of violence in rural America? A lamentation of an authentic American culture in decline? A story about intolerance? It tries to be all of the above. It bites off too much.

Beyond this, there are smaller issues. Another reviewer hit it on the head when she observed that the language sometimes feels like that of an outsider. Compared to someone like Daniel Woodrell or Cormac McCarthy, who ooze the local sap, I’d agree.

The dialogue contains too many mundane interactions, at times feels unbelievable, is sometimes just hokey. Mixed metaphors and analogies that lie outside the world of the novel pop up from time to time—one paragraph uses both the ruins of a castle and a surgical glove as points of comparison. Several times, the POV shifts from first person limited to first person omniscient. The characters are at times cartoony—the villains too malevolent to be believable and Pops too noble to seem authentic. The last third of plot is far-fetched. And that’s followed by a lengthy and unnecessary epilogue.

Which all may seem like I disliked this book. I didn’t. And I have a lot of respect and admiration for Scotton. This book wants to be epic. It wants to be a classic. I just wanted it to be better. I wanted a few more rounds of editing. I wanted it to be more focused, more subtle. It’s in there—it just needs more whittling. The fact that the book earned high praise from so many is an achievement. I wish I could pile on. I look forward to Scotton’s next novels, because I predict they will be really good.

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