“Men like Bubba Boyd think the earth owes them a living. They take whatever wealth they can from the mountains and move on. I actually feel sorry for him, I really do. He can’t for the life of him see the simple beauty in a waterfall or understand the importance of history and place. If I have one hope for you, Kevin, it’s that you never become one of those men.”
– Christopher Scotton, The Secret Wisdom of the Earth
In 1985, in the wake of unspeakable family tragedy, fourteen-year-old Kevin Gillooly and his mother come to Medgar, Kentucky to spend the summer with his maternal grandfather. Annie Gillooly is almost catatonic with grief, drifting around her childhood home as a ghost of her former self. Kevin, with the resilience of youth, is slightly better off, but he’s still utterly numb, overwhelmed with anger and sadness (plus an unfair and undeserved burden of guilt), and has taken to starting fires in a vain attempt to feel anything else. Both are reeling, crushed under far more weight than they are currently able to bear. Arthur Peebles (whom Kevin calls Pops) takes that pressure onto his own shoulders, carrying it for them until they are ready to take it back.
Pops becomes the center of Kevin’s world during the course of that summer, a warm, comforting and serene presence; his wisdom, kindness and good humor is a palpable force throughout the novel. With a wry, dry sense of humor, he takes everything in stride, treating everything and everyone both very seriously, and yet not seriously at all. A truly remarkable man, he takes a subtle, nuanced view of the world around him … and yet also able to out-hike and out-climb Kevin and his friends on an extended camping trip. Pops knows that the only thing that will heal his daughter is time, but Kevin needs a great deal more than that to become whole again, and so he provides what he can. He introduces Kevin to the world of great literature as an escape, starting with Treasure Island; he gives him occupation and responsibility as his veterinary assistant; and he leads by example, teaching Kevin a great deal about life, human nature, and how to think along the way, to see the world with the questioning eyes of an adult and not the accepting eyes of a child.
Kevin also benefits from the friendship of Medgar native Buzzy Fink, who keeps an eye on the fires that Kevin starts, and eventually makes him stop by forcing him to face the very real consequences of his actions. Buzzy makes the surrounding mountains real to Kevin, and shows them all to him, along with his own private names for every mountain and the story behind each one. In part, they bond over all the stupid things that all teenage boys do and think and say as part of their maturation, from Buzzy’s truly revolting toenail collection to killing spiders in a barn with hairspray and a lighter. Buzzy opens up a whole new world for Kevin, who learns a lot from his new friend, intentionally or otherwise. And yet, despite their closeness, there’s a huge chasm between them that nothing can erase: Buzzy is desperate to get out of Medgar and build a life somewhere, anywhere else, while Kevin loves his new home and wants to stay forever. However, as Buzzy points out, that’s only because he can leave anytime he wants.
As idyllic as Kevin finds Medgar at first, beneath its placid surface the town is actually in deep turmoil, torn between the desperate economic need for mountaintop removal mining and the employment it provides (especially after the closing of the underground Medgar seam in 1978), and the high environmental cost that comes with it. One man is killed by fly rock in his back yard, his skull completely obliterated by flying debris; many locals find only gray, sludgy water coming through their taps; others are beset by a mysterious and seemingly untreatable rash. And that is only the beginning, as Scotton describes in vivid, scorching detail the sheer devastation that this type of mining has on the local mountains, hitting home and hard about what we are doing to the planet, and yet keeping it intensely personal. Pops knows, and makes sure the boys know, that you can talk facts and figures and graphs ad nauseam, but it won’t really sink in until you actually see something first hand, in all its brutal immediacy. There are no right answers, no easy solution to the problem, and it’s all further complicated by the personal histories of the men involved, as old and deeply set as the mountains themselves.
Paul Pierce is both a local environmental leader and a prominent member of the community, but a controversial figure who has been balancing on a tightrope his entire life. His horrific murder sets off a chain reaction that will task both Buzzy and Kevin’s courage, strength and endurance in ways they never imagined possible, propelling them both headlong into the terrifying journey that is adulthood. Kevin will find himself feeling more helpless and alone than he ever has before; there has always been someone else for him to rely on: his parents, his teachers, Pops, or Pops’ housekeeper, Audy Rae. Now, he’s all alone and facing an almost unendurable journey of bravery and love. Kevin and Buzzy (two brave, brave boys) are put to the ultimate test, in very different ways, and come through the other side better and stronger for the experience.
It’s hard to put my finger directly on what’s so magical about this novel: there’s simply too much woven together to be able to pull out any particular strand and say, “Yes, this is the crucial element: this is it.” Deeply philosophical and yet it’s all subtle and understated, nothing explicit or overt … much like Pops, when it comes down to it. Harrowing and heart-warming, soaringly poetic and richly down-to-earth, cruel and kind by turns, it’s a powerful, visceral, real book. Certainly it’s the story of one boy’s coming of age, and learning to live in a world both harsher and more complicated than he ever thought possible, but it’s so much more than that. There are layers and layers of meaning embedded within and beneath the plot, but you can’t parse or itemize any of it. Whatever you take away from the novel is an underground river, flowing powerfully and secretly, out of sight; you can’t isolate the lessons to be learned and list them one by one. You just have to let the whole thing wash over you, like a memory or a dream.