Although there are many themes in this novel, homophobia, the environment, an array of human emotions, devotion, life and death, good and evil, it really works because it is also a story about a grandfather and a grandson, their love for each other and the lengths to which they will go to hold onto that love. The book is poignant and humorous at just the right times so as not to make it cloying.
The generational divide disappears as the older man teaches the younger one to appreciate the natural world around him and how to survive within it. The author has given the reader the gift of watching them as they bond in a world that is alive with nature’s bounty. Also, we will be given a view into an Appalachian coal town, not only its beauty and its mountains, but into the world of its poverty stricken inhabitants who are inbred, illiterate and therefore unworldly and locked into a downward spiral from which it is difficult to escape.
It is 1985, Kevin Gillooly is 14 ½ years old; his 3 year old brother was killed in a horrifying freak accident, witnessed by Kevin and his mother, two months before. She has never recovered and has retreated into herself. Kevin’s dad is taking them from their home in Indiana to his mom’s family home for the summer, in the fictional mining town of Medgar, Kentucky, in the heart of Appalachia, to stay with her dad, Arthur Peebles, a former war hero, now a Veterinarian. They are hoping this change of scenery will help her snap out of her ever present stupor. Although Kevin barely shows it, he is actually guilt ridden because both his parents blame him for the death of his brother, Joshua. Arthur Peebles still mourns the death of his wife, decades later, so he understands his daughter’s grief very well. Her mom died giving birth to her, but unlike Kevin’s parents who assigned blame to Kevin, Arthur did not blame Annie for the death of her mother, his one true love.
Over the next few months, Kevin and his granddad, Pops, grow very close. He begins to accompany him on his veterinary rounds, and he learns a great deal about people and human nature, about how they treat each other and how they treat their animals. His granddad teaches him how to fish, trap and hike. He promises to take him on “the tramp” before the summer’s end, camping, fishing and living off the land alone. The reader is privileged to watch the beautiful relationship that develops between the older man, a seeming clone of the original Atticus Finch, and his grandson, as he teaches him the traditions and skills that only a grandfather in that part of the country could, that only one with the infinite patience of Arthur could. He seems to have the right sort of response for all circumstances. He is well respected in town and his influence is strong. Add Audy Rae to this mix and discover Arthur’s longtime housekeeper who is filled with the milk of human kindness and the story takes off. Surrounded by these loving characters, Kevin will begin to grow as he learns to appreciate the beauty of the country surrounding him at the same time as he begins to notice the destruction of the landscape around him and recognize that it is caused by the coal mining companies. They, blow off the tops of the mountains, contaminating the community without a second thought but for their own greed.
When Buzzy Fink enters Kevin’s life, all of the ingredients for his summer of growing up fall into place. Buzzy Fink comes from a poor family of good people. He lives in “Fink’s Hollow”. His family expects him to accomplish something, to behave properly and not to make trouble. His grandmother has taught him many homespun recipes for cures and many homespun superstitions as well, and they all come in handy. Buzzy seems far older than his 15 years, and with his mischievous behavior, he helps Kevin learn how to feel again. When necessary, he exhibits the rare courage few grown men possess, although it is Buzzy’s brother, Cleo, who is the town hero, for his athletic prowess. Yet, it was Buzzy’s courage that eventually forced Kevin to find his own brave heart.
Bubba Boyd was a bully as a youth and as an adult he still is a bully. He is the rich man behind the coal mine that is destroying the environment around them. He is trying to buy out all the landowners to expand his mine. He has no real interest in the town. He ignores the health issues that his mining has caused. For him the mine is really a matter of life and death. He blackmails the townspeople with promises of jobs and benefits to help them, but then does not accept responsibility when they suffer and die from the effects of the mine and the mining.
Paul Pierce (Mr. Paul), is a part owner with his cousin, Miss Janey, in the Paris Salon. He lives with his partner, Paitsel, a former baseball hero, and is the rare brave soul who is willing to fight big money and the bully, Bubba Boyd. Paul is leading the effort to stop Bubba’s rape of their land, blowing off the tops of the mountains and turning their landscape into a barren wasteland. He is contaminating their water supply and there are excessive amounts of disease as a result of the mine work and the environmental contamination. At one of the meetings, Bubba comes in and shuts it down because he owns the building and tells them that they can’t meet there. He insults the government representative, calling him a Jew boy, a heritage he vehemently denies. Then he reveals what was once an “open secret” in the town, and with its sudden public pronouncement, the town reels, humiliated. Arthur stops the shameful display of prejudice, but what follows afterward is a brutal murder which further shakes the townsfolk and the town to its core and reveals its deep seated hypocrisy.
Tilroy is a teenager from a more typical backward family in Appalachia. He makes wonderful drawings for Mr. Paul. He is a boy conflicted by his enormous artistic talent, his sexual confusion and his background of poverty and ignorance. He is the town bully and troublemaker. He is the prime example of society’s failure.
The beauty and the dangers of the natural world are explored alongside what some characters considered the unnatural behavior of human beings. The need to respect the environment is well developed, and the absence of respect for all human beings leads to tragedy. The stupidity of homophobia and of uneducated and extreme religious views, are also illuminated in the wake of the tragedy. Peer pressure and public shaming cause tragic behavior. Guilt, fear, bravery, good and evil are covered at turns, as well.
There are several tragedies that occur in this book, and most are vicious and violently described. Yet, they are dealt with in such a way that the reader is able to cope with them without wanting to look away. The deaths are an important part of the direction of the narrative. Blame, as well as praise, is often placed on the most obvious suspect, but that is often a trick of the eye or a blind eye on the issues. Hypocrisy is so rampant it will anger the reader at times, but all of the issues are dealt with well and appropriately. The harrowing details of Arthur’s rescue by his grandson and his friend sometimes stretch credibility, but the reader might just think, yes, it could happen that way, even when some of the details seemed unfathomable.
There is magic afoot with the appearance of an albino stag with huge antlers. He guides Kevin when he is in danger. When their eyes met, Kevin believed the deer carried within him “the secret wisdom of the earth”. Was the animal real or a figment of Kevin’s imagination to give him courage? No one else saw it.
After the terribly brutal murder of Mr. Paul, the arc of the story takes a different direction as the mystery of “whodunit” develops. While Pops, Kevin and Buzzy are on the tramp they are suddenly being watched and tracked. As they are hunted and they attempt to escape, they must stare down their own fear as the pressure mounts. Kevin must rescue Arthur, Buzzy must find their predator, will they all survive? Sometimes this part of the story took me back to memories of the movie “Deliverance” with all of its tense moments.
The book takes the reader from one century to the next, starting with the birth of Anna and Arthur, early in the 1900’s and ending in 2014, when they returned to Medgar for a funeral and brief reunion with Buzzy.
The narrator, Robert Petkoff was excellent. He absolutely identified each character in his/her own unique way and spoke the words with just the right emphasis and tone for each of them at every moment. This author has written a book that it is hard to put down!