Kevin Gillooly, the teenage protagonist of Christopher Scotton’s debut novel, The Secret Wisdom of the Earth, returns with his mother to her Eastern Kentucky hometown of Medgar after the horrific accidental death of his 3-year-old brother. Kevin’s father hopes a summer under the care of Pops, the family’s cantankerous patriarch and the town veterinarian, will restore the devastated Anne. For Kevin, his time in Medgar is not a retreat, but an introduction to the thorny issues of adulthood, as well as the healing power of nature, thanks to his friendship with Buzzy Fink, a local boy who instructs Kevin in the ways of wilderness.
The town knew better days when the nearby coal mines were productive. Now people are selling off their ancestral lands for the latest in coal extraction: mountaintop removal, which destroys the landscape. In a place with more poverty than opportunity, the choice to sell is a tempting one. A small group of townspeople oppose the powerful mining interests, including Pops. As Kevin accompanies Pops on his veterinary rounds into the hills and hollows, he begins to see what happens when a community loses its connection to its history—a connection Kevin has just discovered for himself, thanks to his time on the family homestead.
Among the novel’s many joys are its characters, which add humor, drama and heartbreak to this layered story. Though a few are just this side of stereotypical (the gay hairdresser, the sassy housekeeper, the repugnant mine company boss), they illustrate the way years of common experience and friendship can be tested by change and hardship. This affecting coming-of-age story faithfully portrays environmental concerns alongside rich family histories.