Please welcome guest book reviewer Crystal Good. Good is a writer poet, Affrilachian homecoming queen, TEDx Talker, tunk player, Mom of three, author of “Valley Girl.” She is currently entangled in Charleston, West Virginia. Find her online at crystalgood.net and @cgoodwoman
The Secret Wisdom of the Earth started out with a boom boom. My expectations were high for the novel when I read its opening:
“It was always coal……
And then, after they gave their years to the weak light and black sweat,
Coal killed them.
And began again”
The book takes you into a world where Kevin, a 14 year old white boy and his mother, move into the Appalachian town called Medgar. Kevin meets another young white boy and local, Buzzy. Through the narrator, Kevin readers start to uncover the hard facts of the region: prejudice, mountain top removal beside the intimacy and challenges of family. In one chapter, Buzzy takes Kevin to the Telling Cave. In the Telling Cave you tell your truth, you share a secret about yourself.
Well, here is my truth, my Telling Cave secret: I didn’t enjoy the book.
On the surface, The Secret Wisdom of the Earth looks like a book my personal taste would agree with – its Appalachian characters, environmental themes and coming of age storyline. But, I didn’t.
I don’t know if it’s because I tend to prefer the economy of language, and the dialogue in “Secret” was excessive to me. I found details to be over described. I just don’t understand why a sentence such as “As he defecated, I turned to the travois.” is needed.
I like things edgy and out of the ordinary — for instance, I’m fond of the novels West Virginia native Giancarlo DiTrapino is publishing. This novel, by contrast, felt safe.
Most everything about “The Secret Wisdom of the Earth” was predictable to me – the Appalachian plot and characters, the “modern” twist with “diversity” in a gay character, a black family, and the ending. I saw all the plots and turns coming like an Andy Griffith show episode– except for what I’m calling the ‘Ode to Deliverance’ canoe chase. Didn’t see that plot twist coming.
I clomped through “The Secret Wisdom of the Earth”. I trudged to the end. I even scented the pages with “Mental Clarity” essential oil to help me stay focused. It was not an exciting read for me. Sure, it has all the elements of craft, and the author, Christopher Scotten, spent years of his life writing and doing all the things a good writers do to birth a story, but it was a slow, a very slow read for me.
But while I’m telling my truth, I need to tell you why I persisted in the book and why maybe you should too.
I was enchanted by the titles; the titles carried each chapter like a poem! I paused in them and used them to reflect on them across the chapters. The titles were a delightful detail, and so were the little nuggets of what I consider prose poetry preceding certain chapters:
The mountains have their memories.
Rooted in narrow rock, hard set to the crest, fused in the folds and braes where the white water races. Their earliest recollections manifested to primordial, wild and feral, then become tamed with people.
This! Yes. And, the section doesn’t stop there it keeps going with throttle and truth, and there are several of these nuggets. These italicized passages that preceded a few chapters were my favorite sections of the book, and of my reading experience.
I was encouraged to keep reading by thinking about how others might read this story and take an activist stance, how others might see Appalachia and the devastation of mountain top removal, how others might see the region in all its beauty that is both of the land and its people. The book is set in 1985, but mountain top removal is still happening today, right now somewhere in Appalachia.
I was impressed with the way the author crafted the dialect. I thought for an outside writer he did a great job capturing conversation. He wasn’t stereotypical, and this impressed me as an Appalachian and writer. There were plenty of aint’s and messn’ and colloquial phrases, but it wasn’t overdone. It felt natural and genuine – the way people talk. I’m sensitive to these things. I own that. His skill in this area impressed me, especially when infusing dialogue with humor.
When he used humor in the dialect, this is where the author’s understanding of the region stood out to me. Humor is one of my favorite Appalachian traits. Appalachians tend to find humor in most anything but it’s a raspy type of funny, often during the most inappropriate times. Perhaps this is how we survive.
I have a hard time recommending this book; however, John Grisham is recommending the book, and to everybody.
“The Secret Wisdom of the Earth” is a marvelous debut novel by Christopher Scotton. The setting, in the coal country of Appalachia, is rich in history and lore and tragedy. A young teenager comes of age under the wise counsel of his grandfather. An ugly murder haunts a small town. The story has everything a big, thick novel should have, and I hated to put it down. —John Grisham
He likes it and maybe you will too. He’s a famous writer. I’m not.
One thing is for certain: this book asks that we all tell our truths.