Coming-of-age stories that are deeply rooted in their physical surroundings have always fascinated me. When I was 10, I read My Side of the Mountain, which is a story about a boy who lives in the hollow of a tree trunk for an entire summer. I also recall reading Summer of the Monkeys and wishing I had woods to explore like the main character. So, The Secret Wisdom of the Earth by Christopher Scotton was a wonderful way to revisit this sort of “coming of age in the wilderness” story I hadn’t realized I’d missed.
Have I mentioned I’m a sucker for nostalgia?
The Secret Wisdom of the Earth is the story of a summer when Kevin, who loses his brother in a tragic home accident, moves to his grandfather’s house with his mom in Medgar, Kentucky. The story takes place in the Appalachian mountain range.
For me, the physical surroundings of the story are just as major of a piece of the story as Kevin, his grandpa, and his newfound friend Buzzy Fink. After looking over my notes for this review, I realized that almost every noted passage referenced Kevin’s physical surroundings. For example, here’s one of my favorite passages, which describes Kevin reemerging from a quicksand mud hole he and Buzzy visit:
“Finally my head broke the surface and I felt the cool air fill my lungs. I opened my eyes to the bright new world. The colors on the trees, the blackness of the mud, and the blueness of the sky all seemed new and wonderful, like I had died and been pulled back to life. My mouth was full of gritty, loamy mud, but I didn’t care. I was alive and everything was right again with the world.” -87
I can almost taste the mud from this passage! There’s something about the way Scotton describes nature that is captivating to me.
However, my favorite part of this book is the camping trip Kevin, his grandpa, and Buzzy take. They hike over 20 miles up and down mountains and through woods, hunt and forage for their food, and witness a meteor shower on top of a mountain. I absolutely love these kinds of adventures because they are so otherworldly to me. I have never attempted anything like this (and based on my athletic abilities, probably never will), but I really enjoy reading about it.
The story’s overall pace is thoughtful, unhurried, and deliberate, even in the midst of major events, and I mean MAJOR events (insert a murder and the reveal of a small town’s well-known secret). The pace actually makes me think of a stifling, hot, humid day where you’re stuck outside without air conditioning and you find the shadiest tree to lie under and take a lazy nap. I’m not entirely certain what that means, to be honest, but it’s the way I felt when I was reading it and it’s part of the reason I so thoroughly enjoyed The Secret Wisdom of the Earth.
It takes 466 pages to tell this story, which I know isn’t for everyone. But if you’re looking for some childhood nostalgia and enjoy the extraordinary in the ordinary, then you’re in for a real treat.