Secret Wisdom brings life from tragedy
It generally doesn't take 20 years or more to write a novel, but that's how long Christopher Scotton's debut novel The Secret Wisdom of the Earth has been kicking around in his head. The idea came to him while in his 20s when he noticed the constant sadness in his friend's mother. This friend told him of his brother's tragic death as a child, and the story stuck with Scotton, building and changing and developing.
I spoke to Scotton on the phone, and he said that he didn't really start writing for years, being too busy working in the technology field. Then one day in London, he realized that he was 38 and if he ever wanted to write the novel he'd always wanted to, he'd better get busy.
"I knew I wanted to write a coming of age story," he said, "and I knew I wanted to write about loss."
And loss helped finish the book. Scotton worked on the book for several years, then ended up abandoning the project again.
And then he was fired. With abundant free time on his hands, he decided to finish the novel. And perhaps that feeling of disorientation that unemployment brings contributed something to the book.
Its themes are those of displacement and unwanted change and loss of all kinds, all set in backwoods Kentucky coal country. Young Kevin and his mother go to live with his grandfather, the local veterinarian, after Kevin's younger brother tragically dies. The tiny town of Medgar is in flux, as a mining conglomerate buys up more and more land for strip mining, land that has been in these families for tens of generations.
Kevin is thrust into this environment, still reeling from his own personal tragedies and guilts, and now has to deal with long simmering resentments, old grudges and fresh injustices that are bubbling up in Medgar. But since the book is also about redemption, he discovers friendship, natural beauty, courage and a meaning in his life as well.
The Secret Wisdom of the Earth isn't at all sappy or melodramatic, and doesn't shy away from the complexities and ugliness of real life, but it tells its tale in a lyrical way, rooted in the rich traditions and culture of rural Kentucky. The characters are sharply drawn and even the putative "villains" have complexity and traits that they can be viewed with empathy. Kevin, who Scotton admits is similar to the type of youth he was, as the main POV character, is a compelling and engaging protagonist, and one we are happy to follow through his journey of self-discovery.
Scotton will be in Wichita at 6 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 16 at Watermark Books, reading from and signing The Secret Wisdom of the Earth.