The Secret Wisdom of the Earth

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The Secret Wisdom of the Earth
480 pages; Grand Central
A brutal hate crime and a hiking adventure gone wrongone event leading to the nextfuel the action in The Secret Wisdom of the Earth, Christopher Scotton's pulse-quickening debut that has elements of such classics as To Kill a Mockingbird and Deliverance. Set in the 1980s in the fictional Medgar, Kentucky (the town's name is an homage to the civil-rights-era martyr Medgar Evers), the novel examines the animosities simmering in an impoverished coal-mining community caught between its ingrained traditions and threats from the outside world.

Reeling from a personal tragedy, 14-year-old Kevin Gillooly and his mother seek sanctuary with her father, Pops, a shrewd, avuncular veterinarian whom his fellow citizens often turn to for guidance. Kevin finds companionship in Buzzy, a half-wild teenage boy; together they roam the mountains and hollows that surround Medgar, exploring caves and canoeing lakes and basking in Pops's jokes and stories. But their idyll is interrupted by the murder of Mr. Paul, a family friend and gay businessman determined to protect the land from strip mining. In the aftermath, Pops decides to take the boys on a "tramp," a days-long wilderness trek that becomes a harrowing descent into Medgar's heart of darkness.

Scotton tempers his Gothic tale with poignant insights into the crushing weight of loss. In prose as biting as Pops's sour mash whiskey, The Secret Wisdom of the Earth melds beguiling characters with an urgent ecological message.
— Hamilton Cain