A publication of Appalachian Voices

A publication of Appalachian Voices

The Secret Wisdom of the Earth


The debut novel by Christopher Scotton is a coming-of-age story that takes familiar themes — tragedy and the quest to find healing — and explores them with the backdrop of a central Appalachian community beset by mountaintop removal coal mining.

Set in 1985 in the fictional Medgar, Ky., a richly conceived mountain hamlet populated by colorful characters, “Secret Wisdom of the Earth” traces the summer 14-year-old Kevin Gillooly spent at his mother’s childhood home in the mountains as he comes to grips with the tragic death of his younger brother. Exploring Medgar and the surrounding hills, Scotton uses prose at once elegant and approachable to weave together the stories of longtime residents, close friends and unabashed enemies, including many struggling with whether or not to abide by the bounds of tradition.

In mending his broken life, Kevin develops deep ties with some folks including his stoic grandfather, Pops, and Buzzy, an adventurous local boy with whom he becomes fast friends. Others, like Bubba Boyd, a prideful and blustering coal baron, offer powerful lessons too. The wiser respect the land. The shortsighted concentrate only on what can be taken.

“Men like Bubba Boyd think the Earth owes them a living,” Pops explains. “They take whatever wealth they can from the mountains and move on.”

Though not about environmentalism on the surface, an environmental ethic permeates the novel and gives readers perspective on the threats posed by energy extraction in Appalachia today.

At first, mountaintop removal is depicted as a pervasive but rarely-seen evil encroaching on Medgar as Bubba Boyd grabs up more and more land surrounding the town. Ultimately, however, it’s the friction created in the small community by mountaintop removal that precipitates a story of family, friendship and overcoming odds that will change Kevin’s life and the town of Medgar forever. — Review by Brian Sewell

Read an interview with Christopher Scotton

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