Kevin Gillooly, the 14-year-old narrator of Christopher Scotton’s debut novel, “The Secret Wisdom of the Earth,” falls into the timeworn tradition of orphans, latchkey kids and boy adventurers who by circumstance or necessity are left to their own devices. It’s hard not to root for such young heroes. We feel parental toward them even while we relish their freedom; they engage our desire to protect but also our fantasy of total independence.
Scotton, a Washington area native, opens his novel in 1985. Kevin has moved with his mother from Indiana to the dying coal town of Medgar, Ky., leaving his father behind. His mother is so stricken with grief from the recent death of her other child, Kevin’s 3-year-old brother, Josh, that she has become a ghost, barely able to speak or leave the house. “Mom was on the wing chair in the dim living room. Her hobbled body followed the slips and contours of the chair as if woven to it.” Kevin wanders around the town and surrounding hills, setting fire to dumpsters, car seats and patches of grass, until he’s caught in the act of torching an old mine shed by a local boy named Buzzy Fink.
Buzzy is the first of two mentors who takes Kevin under his wing. He tells him whom to watch out for in town, shows him the hidden trails and mysterious places such as “The Telling Cave,” where “everyone who goes in has to tell a secret bout themselves. . . . You don’t tell the Telling Cave a secret,” Buzzy warns, “it’ll kill you.”
If Buzzy is the guide of youth, Kevin’s maternal grandfather, Arthur Peebles, a.k.a. “Pops,” emerges as the guide of age and wisdom. A veterinarian and Medgar lifer, Pops takes Kevin on house calls, and we’re given access to remote corners of Appalachia and to characters such as the Budget clan, who “don’t go to school past the tenth grade; they live off the land, get handouts, and work the mines and odd jobs to make up the rest. They’ve been living in this hollow for almost one hundred years, marrying each other and having each other’s babies. The gene pool is getting a bit shallow.”
Pops also teaches Kevin about the environmental devastation brought about by big coal. For 70 years, the Monongahela Mining Company strip-mined the nearby mountains, creating jobs at the expense of the land and public health. When the last underground seam stopped producing, the company began a mountaintop removal operation that has already flattened seven mountains and created a toxic slurry pond that threatens to contaminate the town. Along with Paul Pierce, co-owner of the local beauty shop, Pops speaks out against the company at a town hall meeting. But Monangahela owner Bubba Boyd shouts them down, then changes the subject: “I’ll tell you what’s an abomination that will not abide . . . a sodomite abomination destroyin this town.” In front of his God-fearing, homophobic neighbors, Paul and the man with whom he has been living are outed, thus setting in motion a series of tragic events.
Scotton is a natural storyteller with a terrific knack for visiting trouble upon his characters and pushing them into confrontation. He is not afraid to play a scene out to violent ends, and because Kevin and others go through fire, they change and grow. Not a page goes by without a threat, a promise, an action or a reckoning. The political, economic and moral dilemma of the mines that giveth and taketh away is expertly woven into the story. “Coal took them in as teenagers, proud, cocksure, and gave them back fully played out. Withered and silent,” Scotton writes. Although his prose is mostly serviceable and sometimes collapses into abstraction, he brings the town and especially the natural surroundings alive without ever disrupting the pace of his swift-moving tale.
And like any good story of boy adventurers, the hero begins in isolation, is brought into the community and finally becomes an actor, even a leader along the arc of his coming of age. Most readers will be swept up in the stream of events, moved by Kevin’s situation and charmed by his pluck. Some might find, as I did, that the story is old-fashioned to a fault. The clashes are between good and evil, right and wrong. Buzzy is the wise fool, Pops the old sage; along with the gay couple and Pops’s African American maid, they stand squarely on the side of virtue, while the company boss and certain members of the Budget clan represent pure villainy.
Although the plot keeps building, it’s safe to predict that the good will prevail and the wicked will get their comeuppance. “The Secret Wisdom of the Earth” delivers on the tried and true while resisting that further challenge: the nuanced and new.
Shreve’s fourth novel, “The End of the Book,” was published last year.
THE SECRET WISDOM OF THE EARTH
By Christopher Scotton
Grand Central. 468 p. $26