They say “don’t judge a book by its cover,” and sometimes I agree with that and sometimes I don’t. In the case of Auraria, however, I’m begging you to not judge it by the cover. When I was first asked to review Tim Westover’s latest, I was left a little flat by its nondescript gray tones, and I couldn’t imagine what this book was supposed to be about. But the story caught me completely off guard, and I’m here to tell you Auraria is a book worth reading, and I am recommending it without hesitation.
Filled with folktales and magical imagery, Auraria is the tale of two men, Shadburn and Holtzclaw, who try to turn the small, mountainous town of Auraria, Georgia into a world-class vacation resort. The first sentence of the book sets the tone for what’s to come:
“Holtzclaw hadn’t heard of Auraria until his employer sent him to destroy it.”
Holtzclaw is given the task of buying up all the land parcels in Auraria so that his employer Shadburn can launch his plan. But when he arrives and starts getting to know the townsfolk, he discovers a wild and unpredictable place full of ghosts, singing trees, and moon maidens that bathe in the springs of Auraria in order to wash the gold off their skin. At first Holtzclaw is skeptical of the piano-playing ghosts and fish that jump out of the mist, but the longer he stays in Auraria, the more he becomes enchanted by the magical forces at play. Most of the land owners he approaches sell their property willingly enough after seeing the pile of money and gold coins Holtzclaw pulls out of his bag, and before long Shadburn joins Holtzclaw in Auraria to begin putting his plan into action: building a huge dam to stop the waters that flow throughout the town to create an immense lake, which will literally bury Auraria underwater.
The pace of the story is like a leisurely stroll down a mountain path. Westover takes his time painting a picture of the strange town, and his masterful descriptions of Auraria and its inhabitants evoke a folktale feeling. The themes of water and gold weave their way throughout the story. When Holtzclaw first arrives in town, he meets Princess Trahlyta, a mysterious girl who appears whenever Holtzclaw is near the water. She pops up again and again in the story and serves as a mentor and a muse for Holtzclaw as he becomes embroiled in the goings-on of the strange community. And Auraria, like its name, is full of gold, but only those who are lucky will ever find it in vast amounts. Flakes of gold, or “colors,” are everywhere, and the residents of Auraria even wear hats that double as gold pans. But as the residents are told to move to higher ground before the lake rises, Shadburn reveals a darker purpose for flooding the valley: he wants to literally bury the gold underwater and recreate Auraria as something other than a gold town.
As Shadburn’s vision is finally realized and people begin to flock to the newly built Queen of the Mountain hotel and Lake Trahlyta, the ill-built dam begins to crumble and the townsfolk’s ever-increasing dreams of gold spark a frenzy of gold hunting that signals the end of Shadburn’s dream. For the town of Auraria, and its gold, refuse to stay buried, and Princess Trahlyta is determined to put things back the way they were.
Westover’s imagery is wonderful. When Holtzclaw goes to the cemetery to try to convince the ghosts to abandon their graves, he finds them unwilling to leave: “The dead clung to their coffins like survivors of a shipwreck.” And at the Old Rock Falls tavern he meets Abigail, whose dusty bottles of spirits evoke a magical world: “At the bottom, sediment in suspension was swirled upwards by Abigail’s handling then drifted downwards again like a lazy ghost.”
Auraria contains far too many marvels to list here. I was reminded of both Lewis Carroll and Neil Gaiman, for both the playfully absurd characters and Westover’s ability to make the reader fall in love with a town full of magic and ghosts, despite that absurdity. The author weaves a spell that will leave you believing in ghostly piano players and story-telling terrapins, all the way to the book’s perfect and satisfying end.
Many thanks to QW Publishers, for supplying a review copy.
And stayed tuned! I will be giving away two copies of Auraria soon!