Review: Auraria, by Tim Westover

I’m a Northeastern girl through and through. I was born in Manhattan, raised on Long Island, and lived in Queens post-undergrad; I went to college and grad school in Rhode Island; the majority of my friends and family are spread between Boston, Providence, and New York City. The furthest south I’ve been in the U.S is South Carolina. So it was with slight trepidation that I approached Tim Westover’s Auraria, a novel centered on a small Southern gold mining town and steeped in rural Georgian history, culture, and myth. With very little background knowledge of the area, I was still able to understand and connect with Westover’s cast of mysterious, quirky, and downright magical characters.

Those characters were one of Auraria‘s biggest strengths. The residents of the town range from a piano-playing ghost to a Great and Invincible Tortoise to fish spirits to the assorted humans who happen to be just as odd as the non-humans. Out of our large cast, I liked Princess Tralyhta and Abigail the best. Both were presented as strong, fearless, and competent, and both were able to take Holtzclaw under their protection from some of the more dangerous elements of the town. The Princess managed to be mysterious, childlike, and threatening by turns, and I enjoyed her random interactions with Holtzclaw, as well as her explanation of how gold forms and why Auraria needs to be rid of it. Abigail, a tough young lady who sees visions of gold, was just excellent, and I would have gladly read an entire novel from her perspective. These unusual small-town folks helped to give Auraria the charming, dusty feel of a sepia-toned photograph–the story of a time that has come and gone.

For me, the weak link was actually our main character, Holtzclaw. As an outsider to Auraria, sent on behalf of his employer Shadburn to buy up property, Holtzclaw is a logical choice to serve as our point-of-view character; we can meet the rest of the cast through his eyes. It’s one of the oldest tricks in the book, and for good reason (hello, Great Gatsby!). However: Holtzclaw is presented as competent from the start–there is no real arc for him to go from surprised and frightened of the living local legends to deftly negotiating with them. Even when he fails in some of his early business deals, it’s not because he is freaked out by the ghost or the moon maiden or whoever–it’s just because his arguments fail to sway them. He is rarely surprised or impressed by any of the bizarre sights he is confronted with, which was honestly difficult to believe. Despite following him around for most of the novel, he remained a cipher to me (albeit a cipher who liked squirrel brains and a good claret).

I want to call this Red Power Ranger syndrome. When there is one character that is designated as the leader, it tends to obliterate his flaws, making him technically perfect, but also boring. His one defining character trait becomes “leader.” Like the original Red Power Ranger. While you maybe liked him, he was never your favorite–it was the bad-boy White Ranger or the awesome Yellow Ranger. Holtzclaw is Auraria‘s Red Power Ranger, and I don’t think he necessarily had to fill that role.

I suppose what stuck in my craw about all this was that we were shown that Holtzclaw was capable of wonder. The most genuine moment, for me, was probably when he was given the gift of a huge, delicious peach early on in the novel. He was really delighted by it! It also felt perfectly in-character to then have him brainstorm ways of turning a profit using the peaches. The other moment would probably be the scene with the singing tree, which he finds wonderful and everyone else finds too weird. But I wanted to see that sense of wonder throughout.

‘This is Auraria. We run on spirits, not steam.’

The writing itself was neat and straightforward. While this emphasized Holtclaw’s no-nonsense personality, it also took a bit of the magic out of the magical goings-on. Other magical realism stories I’ve read, like 100 Years of Solitude, use poetic, highly-descriptive language to heighten the sense of wonder, and I missed that element. However, readers who prefer clean and crisp prose to flashier stylings will be grateful to Westover. The story really has the taste of a fable, where you can probably guess how it ends, but following the journey to see the characters learn is worthwhile. I appreciated that we were not beaten over the head with the story’s morals, but rather left to come upon them organically as the plot unfurled. Again, delving into the sad history of Auraria and Princess Tralyhta’s warnings helped establish the fairy tale feel. (While I found the side-plot of Holtzclaw’s luxury yacht business venture was distracting to the main plot, I understand that Westover wanted to make some points about wealth, as well as give another character something to do.)

I found Auraria to be a good, not great, read overall; some of the characters and the fairy tale atmosphere were nicely done. It did, however, succeed in making me interested in learning more about the real-life Auraria, as well as the myths and legends local to this area of the south. Who knows–maybe I’ll even make a visit down to see the real thing! If you’re from the Southern Appalachians area, or want to learn more about it, I think you’d enjoy this novel.

I received Auraria free for review through NetGalley. It will be released July 10th, 2012.

Bookwanderer Rating: Three out of five stars
Bookwanderer Tagline: “Most people can’t leave behind the ghost stories and come to know the ghosts.”

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