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The Secret Wisdom of the Earth

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The Secret Wisdom of the Earth

Current Status:
In Season
Christopher Scotton
Grand Central Publishing

We gave it a B

The residents of Medgar, Kentucky, are proud of their little hamlet deep in Appalachian coal country: the dense woods and swimming holes, the down-home traditions and tight-knit family clans. But by 1985 the mountains are nearly mined out and the local economy is on the verge of collapse; it’s become the kind of place ”people just didn’t move into.” Fourteen-year-old Kevin Gillooly ends up there only because he and his mother, both numb and reeling from the sudden death of his baby brother, need somewhere soft to land, and his grandfather has offered to take them in for the summer.

Like most small towns in big novels (The Secret Wisdom of the Earth tops out at 466 pages), Medgar teems with a metropolis’ worth of intrigue. There’s the ongoing battle with local kingpin/baddie Bubba Boyd, who wants to blast the last veins of profit out of the earth at any cost, and the hairdresser-turned-activist whose sexuality severely tests its citizens’ tolerance for open secrets. There are bullies and blood feuds and rednecks so maroon that the dueling Deliverance banjos seem to cue up whenever they roll by. There’s also more than one scene of genuinely brutal violence, and the hanging specter of exactly how Kevin’s brother died.

It took Christopher Scotton, who is the CEO of a software company by day, 15 years to write Secret, and it shows. It often feels as if he’s trying to fit every known genre — coming-of-age tale, murder mystery, David vs. Goliath, adventure epic, literary song of the South — into his stuffed turducken of a plot. Too many characters speechify like they’re auditioning for a community-theater mash-up of Sling Blade and To Kill a Mockingbird, and a narrative shift that comes in halfway through overstays its welcome. A present-day coda adds paragraphs but few epiphanies.

Still, it’s not hard to see why the book has earned early praise and an impressive first-run print order of 100,000 copies. Secret has lovely sensory moments, and it strives to tell the type of story that many contemporary novelists find too old-fashioned, or too sincere: one about family and community, good guys and bad guys, love and loss and spiritual redemption. Like Medgar, it’s flawed and sprawling and a little bit unmoored, but its aim is true. B