Book Review: Auraria by Tim Westover


In a Nutshell
Westover’s Aurariais like having a great novel, a night of ghost stories around a campfire, and a college course in Appalachian folktales all rolled into one.
The Whole Enchilada
We all love fairy tales and legends when we’re kids, but as we get older the fairy tales–and I’m talking about truly compelling fairy tales, not the simple, syrupy plotlines so many bad romantic comedies are based on–seem to dry up. Some might argue that the Science Fiction and Fantasy genre can satisfy the grown-up desire for magic and wonder, but what you get from Sci-Fi/Fantasy isn’t quite the same as what you get from Fairy Tales. Fairy Tales and Legends tend to be local rather than off-world (or alternate world), and the skeleton of the Fairy Tale is often familiar. In fact, it’s this very familiarity which makes the Fairy Tale so alluring… The protagonist of the story could just as easily be ourselves–our house, our grandmother, our innocence, our own deep dark woods.
Tim Westover’s Aurariais truly modern day Legend, a much-needed Fairy Tale for adults. Actually, I would argue that it’s better than a Fairy Tale, because it takes storytelling to the next level. Westover takes time with his tale. This is no brief moral fable or cautionary tale peppered with obvious archetypes. His characters have depth, mystery, and motivation. His descriptions are so loving and vibrant that you can feel the moss between your toes, the icy wind on your fingers, and smell the moist, dark earth. But the most important ingredient of all is the awe and wonder. Auraria is filled with wonder.  
Auraria’s main character James Holtzclaw is a pragmatist, and certainly not someone susceptible to awe or wonder. As the book begins Holtzclaw has been sent by his mysterious employer (by the name of Shadburn) to the remote Appalachian town of Auraria. His mission is to buy up the town and all of its surrounding lands and farms. To accomplish this, Holtzclaw has been given, in addition to ordinary federal notes, “the strangest [gold coins] he had ever seen. Instead of eagles and shields, the coins were stamped with images of bumble-bees, terrapin, chestnut trees, and indistinct figures by a stream. The figures might have been bathing or even panning for gold; they were too small to tell. Shadburn had said the coins were minted in Auraria from local metal. The gold was returning to its source.” But if Holtzclaw expects the purchase of Aurarian land to be quick and easy, he is sorely (and very luckily for the reader) mistaken.
Holtzclaw must spend weeks in Auraria in his effort to find each landowner. He walks miles each day, from farmstead to mine to mountaintop, unwittingly collecting the rich soil of Auraria in his shoes and his pants cuffs, in his hair and the creases on his face. Along the way he finds a frozen farm that never thaws, a never-ending house, fish that swim through a valley of mist; he eats dinner with a ghost, has conversations with the Great and Harmless and Invincible Terrapin, and meets the beautiful and mysterious Princess Trahlyta. During this time that Holtzclaw is methodically buying up all the land of Auraria, he is slowly but surely, if not exactly falling in love with the land, becoming inextricably bound to it. What happens when the land is all bought up, his job is done, and Holtzclaw finds he is unable to leave?
Tim Westover’s writing style is a perfect complement to the story. He somehow manages to be fantastic and understated at the same time. The effect is that the prose is a joy to read, but in no way overshadows or distracts from the story or the characters. Additionally, Westover does a fantastic job of weaving what I imagine are actual old-Appalachian folktales seamlessly into the greater arc of his own unique story. The reader is left with a feeling of having read a great novel, listened to grandma telling ghost stories by the fire, and taken a college course in Appalachian folktales, all rolled into one delightful 390 page package.
I can promise that this book is like nothing else you’ve ever read. The names, the events, the characters and attitudes… All are a discovery and a delight. Westover’s Aurariareminds us of why we fell in love with fiction in the first place: For the wonder and adventure that somehow seems both absolutely impossible, but also inevitably waiting just around the next bend in the road.
Side Notes
Tim Westover is not only a talented writer, he’s also very active with the social media. He has a great blog: Baby, Book and Banjo, shares breath-taking pictures on his Auraria Facebook page, and is impressively active (for a working writer, that is) on twitter @TimWestover. And I promise you Mr. Westover isn’t paying me to say any of this, I just appreciate authors who come across as real, approachable people.
Also, I received this book from the publisher via LibraryThing.
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