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Get Lost in Auraria

Tim Westover’s new book about the water spirits, moon maidens and haunted pianos that live in a fading gold rush town – and the man who is in charge of their fate – is a must-read for fall. 
by Erin Z. Bass

Red fish that jump up from lakes of mist. Houses with infinite interior space. Farms frozen over by their springhouses. Moon maidens. Plat-eyes out to rob travelers not of their goods , but of their heads. Every hill and dale has its particular boogeymen. 

This excerpt from Tim Westover‘s new novel “Auraria” sums up the fantastical world the author has created in five sentences, but you’ll want to read it from cover to cover. Based on a real-life Gold Rush town in the North Georgia Mountains, “Auraria” draws the reader in slowly and expertly. A man is sent by his employer to the tiny town to buy up all the land. With a bag of gold coins and a bit of business sense, this task shouldn’t be too difficult for main character James Holtzclaw. But as he descends further and further into the valleys of Auraria, his task becomes less and less clear. Things aren’t what they seem in the Lost Creek Valley, and it turns out the value of gold doesn’t quite add up either.

North Georgia has its share of old ghost towns, but gold was first discovered in the areas of Auraria and Dahlonega. Asked why he chose Auraria as the setting for his story, Westover, who lives in the Atlanta area, says, “It seemed to be an epicenter of some of that old Southern weirdness that happens.” “Southern weirdness” is one way to describe the characters and sights in his book, most of them based on the folklore of the Southern Appalachians. “Anything connected to gold is going to spawn a lot of tall tales and real tales about greed and murder. I think that’s what drew me to the area,” Westover continues.

“Auraria” is his first book written in English (he has a book of short stories in the international language of Esperanto), but Westover says his style is definitely reality blended with fantasy. More Gabriel Garcia Marquez than Tolkien, Westover spent about two years researching the book and says he read everything from treasure searching manuals to more serious history books.

He also drew from  his love of hiking and travel as well as his appreciation for folk music. An amateur banjo player, Westover says he was influenced by the book “The Old Weird America: The World of Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes” by Greil Marcus. “I liked the world that he constructs on top of Bob Dylan’s music and on top of a couple of other famous anthologies of folk music that constructs this strange world of unusual occurrences and fantastic happenings,” he says. “You have talking birds, you have murder ballads, and that is somehow taken in stride by the singers of these songs. It was just part of their world.”

He compares his use and adaptation of folk legends to what folk musicians like Dylan do. “These fantastic stories and bits of history are not my imaginings, but my performance is recombining them into a particular piece.” For Westover, that piece is “Auraria.” There aren’t any talking birds in his book, but there are singing trees, will-o’-the-wisps, moon maidens who bathe in the river at night, a ghost who plays piano in the local pub and a turtle that lives under the mountain.

“The moon maidens are a legend that actually comes out of the Okefenokee Swamp,” Westover explains. “I transplanted them and mixed them up a little bit with the Fort Mountain legend.” The legend he’s referring to originates from Rabun County and attempts to explain a mysterious wall along the mountain ridge. Theories attribute it to  an early expedition by Welsh princes to ceremonial Native American purposes and supernatural visitations.

Mr. Bad Thing, Auraria’s ghostly piano player, is a Cherokee legend that Westover describes as “a general mischief-making spirit that has to be appeased.” And Auraria’s Great and Harmless and Invincible Terrapin comes from a pamphlet on North Carolina legends.

Just to be clear, readers don’t meet all of these characters all at once, nor do they seem that strange when we finally do meet them. This is a testament to Westover’s skills as a writer and the story he’s telling in “Auraria.” “The real world for Auraria is a little different from the real world,” he says. “I wanted to reach some point of normalcy in the book, where the fantastic elements are really part of that daily life rather than just having people stand around and be amazed, because that gets old for both the writer and the reader.”

And that’s how “Auraria” draws you in. You might find yourself wishing that your town had a friendly spirit at pub or a princess who was looking out for the greater good. Now, the gold, that’s another matter altogether. Much like a traditional fable, Westover’s story is ultimately a morality tale about greed and the effect it can have on people. In the end, Holtzclaw must decide what’s more important: family or fortune?

While Auraria is an official ghost town these days, with only some historical markers, an abandoned hotel and old general story left, Westover does have a tip for visiting the area. He suggests traveling about a quarter of a mile down the road from the historical markers to the Etowah River. Park the car, walk down the path along the stretch of shallow water, and you’ll find people panning for gold.

“It’s something that we think belongs to California and the 1850s, but really it’s part of Georgia from the 1830s,” he says. “It’s part of North Carolina from the 1790s, and it’s part of the 21st century too. With gold at $1,800 an ounce now, people are really out there again and chasing their fortunes still.”

Included on our Fall/Winter Reading List, “Auraria” is available now. (We do have a few copies to give away, so keep commenting on the reading list for a chance to win.) You can also catch Westover on October 30 at Charis Books in Atlanta and the Dahlonega Literary Festival November 10-11. To see more real-life sights from Auraria and surrounding areas, visit the Auraria Facebook page. Westover regularly travels the area with his young daughter in tow and shares photos of ruins, creeks, caves, waterfalls and more. He hasn’t captured any spirits yet, but it’s only a matter of time.

Join us next Friday, October 12, when we’ll be chatting with Tim Westover on Twitter from 1-2 CST (2-3 EST). The hashtag will be #southernlit, and we recommend using tweetchat.com. 

Photo Credit: Westover at Raven Cliff Falls and Sweetwater Creek from the Auraria Facebook page.  

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