Ever since 12-year-old Curley Hines can remember, his grandfather has been giving him new words to learn each week. They begin with “A” in January and run through the alphabet twice during the course of a year. Papaw tells the seventh grader: “Well, Curley, words are your way out of the holler.”
Like Papaw’s words and his best friend, Jules, the holler is important to Curley. He loves his home in Wonder Gap, a coal-mining region in eastern Kentucky. But that love is tinged with pain: Coal claimed the life of Curley’s father in a mining accident, and four years later his mother and little brother were killed in a coal-related mud slide.
When the coal company changes hands, Curley and Jules are thrown together with the new owner’s son, JD, to collaborate on a science project on the eastern elk. When Curley learns that JD’s father and Tiverton Coal plan to remove the top of Red Hawk Mountain through a process called Appalachian surface coal mining, he sets out to make an Internet video to muster public opinion and garner opposition to the project. Curley uses his Papaw’s words to help guide his decisions and cope with personal challenges, and each word and its definition are featured at the end of the chapter.
Mary Knight’s heartfelt debut novel paints a vivid picture of a boy and his community, bound together by deep ties and a love of land and family. The novel is especially timely given current debates about the future of coal energy.
Deborah Hopkinson lives near Portland, Oregon. Her most recent book for young readers is Beatrix Potter and the Unfortunate Tale of a Borrowed Guinea Pig.