Auraria by Tim Westover (QW Publishers; 384 pages; $17.95).
It’s a good thing I don’t judge books by their covers or by their publishers; otherwise, I would have missed a gem. The cover of Tim Westover’s novel Auraria is embossed with the faint outline of mist-covered woods and mountains. Nothing special. Nothing really concrete as to what the story will be about. Westover’s publisher, QW, is not one of the powerful publishing houses either. QW is an indie publisher, one of which I honestly had never heard. However, if you skip over Auraria for its forgettable cover or its lesser-known publisher, you are doing yourself a disservice.
The beginning of Auraria recalls the eerie opening of Bram Stoker’s classic novel Dracula. Like Jonathan Harker traveling by carriage at night to the home of Count Dracula, James Holtzclaw approaches the fading gold-rush town of Auraria, Georgia, in the Southern Appalachian Mountains, in a blue mist. His employer, a rather mysterious figure called Hiram Shadburn, sent Holtzclaw to Auraria to “destroy” the town. Shadburn wants to turn Auraria into a resort and drown the place under a man-made lake. Westover only gradually reveals Shadburn’s true motives and his surprising history.
Again like Stoker, Westover knows how to set a mood. In his traveling bag, Holtzclaw carries a significant amount of money, money Shadburn gave him to buy property from those who live in Auraria. “The thousands of dollars in federal notes were just ordinary paper, but the gold coins were the strangest” Holtzclaw had ever seen. “Instead of eagles and shields,” Westover writes, “the coins were stamped with images of bumblebees, terrapins, chestnut trees, and indistinct figures by a stream.” The strange gold coins had come from Auraria, and now they were returning home.
Westover illustrates how unique the town of Auraria is. Its weirdly wonderful inhabitants are just as quirky as the town. Holtzclaw gets to know the people of Auraria as he buys their property. He meets a boy fishing where there is no water. Holtzclaw sees the boy catch a fish nonetheless. When questioned, the boy explains, “I just throw out my line, and the fish latch on.” Holtzclaw is certain the child has cooked up a scheme to try to sell fish the easy way. As Holtzclaw descends deeper into the town and buys up more property, it only gets weirder. For example, the town’s dead sit on their gravestones and can carry on conversations. To move Auraria’s graveyard to its new location, he must ask permission from the cemetery’s oldest resident, not from the inhabitant most advanced in age but from the little girl who has been there the longest. Holtzclaw also comes into contact with Princess Trahltya, who frolics in Auraria’s springs and who works for the moon maidens.
Auraria contains many fantastical elements, as you have probably already surmised. The genre of fantasy allows Westover to let his imagination run wild. Westover masterfully employs magical realism in his story. Holtzclaw enters a man’s town house to inquire about purchasing his land. Those within say Mr. Walton is upstairs. When Holtzclaw gets to the town house’s top-most floor, there is still no sign of Mr. Walton.
Holtzclaw is not in an ordinary town, so why should a town house be any different? Belulah, who lives there, admonishes Holtzclaw for taking things at face value: “Well, you know how some houses are,” she says. “They look small from the outside, but they’re bigger inside. How were you counting? By the windows? That’s not a very good way to count. What if someone forgot to put in a window or put in an extra one?” Things are not what they seem, as Holtzclaw and readers discover time and again in Westover’s story. Another shining example of this is when a ghost named Mr. Bad Thing plays a piano. Holtzclaw is convinced it is a player piano. One of Auraria’s residents scolds him: “Just because you don’t know how it works,” she says, “doesn’t mean that it can’t work.”
Westover uses skillful personification to tell part of his story. Deep under the Appalachian Mountains lives the “Great and Harmless and Invincible Terrapin.” The gigantic turtle talks and has a history and a memory. “Long ago, when the world was soft and had not been baked hard by the sun,” the terrapin begins, “I was a small terrapin. The sun began to blaze, and I fled from its heat. I burrowed into the mud, and as I grew, I made larger and larger channels. I came to this place where the rock was soft and the valley was cool and dark, and I have lived here ever since.” He confesses, “I am old here.” The turtle also feels pain. His so-called invincibility does not exempt him from suffering: “I suffer the pain of many, many long years spent under the mountain.”
His time in Auraria changes Holtzclaw, just as Westover’s story affects readers. One cannot spend time in Auraria and be the same person he was prior to his arrival. That holds true for Holtzclaw and for us.
Auraria is such an appealing story because it crosses so many different genres: historical fiction (yes, the town of Auraria, GA, really did exist; see E. Merton Coulter’s Auraria: The Story of a Georgia Gold Mining Town), fantasy, ghost story, and mystery. Southern folklore comes to life in Westover’s hands as he intertwines fact with fantasy and superstition. But perhaps Westover’s greatest achievement is proving book covers and publishers mean very little really; it’s all about the story. The stuff in between the covers is what really matters.