- Hardcover: 292 pages
- Publisher: Soho Press; 1 edition (November 1, 2010)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1569478619
- ISBN-13: 978-1569478615
- Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 0.9 x 9.3 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 19 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #4,447,951 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Crown of Dust Hardcover – November 1, 2010
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Volmer's distinctive, beautifully written debut is set in the California gold rush country in the mid-19th century, when tensions and fortunes were as volatile as the ground prospectors mined. The story follows Emaline, proprietress of the Victoria Inn in Motherlode, who charges for providing room and board (and sometimes additional, special company) to the prospectors descending on Motherlode in search of the big find. She is captivated by a mysterious stranger, Alex, who barely speaks, keeps his hat tipped low, and is soon revealed to be a young woman runaway whose character and intentions come under close scrutiny. All the while, Emaline keeps a maternal eye on "Golden Boy" Alex as she exhaustively and successfully navigates the gold mines. Soon after Alex's gender ambiguity begins to have unexpected consequences, trouble finds Emaline because of her relationship with a black man. Volmer's prose is taut and restrained, moving the story along at a healthy clip as her hardscrabble characters rumble and stumble through their dusty domain. Volmer's found a fat vein of gold in some heavily mined territory. (Nov.) (c)
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Alex is running away and hiding from her past. Disguised as a young man, she stumbles across a small, crude California mining town called Motherlode. It’s the height of the gold rush, and she blends in with the ragtag crowd of men looking to strike it rich. Emaline is the strong, robust town matriarch who runs the inn, controls the booze, and, as the only woman in town, supplies some feminine company for a price. Emaline takes a shine to Alex, gives her a room at the inn, and even lets her help in the kitchen occasionally. But when Alex finds a sizable gold nugget in the local river, word spreads fast, and the changes that come to Motherlode have a costly price, including the discovery of Alex’s true identity. Volmer’s first novel is a pleasant effort. What she lacks in plot she makes up for in interesting characters and atmosphere. She captures the authenticity of place and the spirit of the period through the greed, exhilaration, disappointment, and hope of the characters. --Carolyn Kubisz
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Author Volmer partially excuses away the eccentricity of her characters by suggesting the gold "rush" draws a great variety of edgy people to the scene where fantastic fortunes are theirs for the picking. She says, "Seems like every one of these men, new hat or tattered, claims to be this and also this, and on occasion that. Believe everything or nothing of what they say, it would make no difference. Gold just opened this place up, spanned the world like a guitar string, plucked a little different by each man walking through. When rebellions, famines, floods--the usual fare with added local complaints: miners striking against water companies and President this or Governor that promising to do more than General this or Judge that, if you just elect him."
While it may be true that frontier towns by their nature are bound to attract an odd assortment of types, Volmer's Alex is not always credible as a boy -and we sometimes wonder how a "boy" in a mostly male society is never detected. The sheer modesty entailed in living under primitive circumstances would seem to be noticed and thought to be suspicious.
In "Crown of Dust" Mary Volmer successfully brings together the elements of the old west and gold mining. After Alex (nee Alexandra) discovers gold s/he is led to stake a claim which trustworthy, experienced miners work to help the "young man" make his/her mine play out. In that way, we learn much about finding and purifying gold bearing ore, whether through panning in rivers and streams, clawing it from the hills, or high pressure water hosing the sides of mountains (Placer mining). Like the conflict of many would-be get-rich-quick drifters and unprincipled businessmen, all of this swirls and roils about the town suddenly named "Motherlode" for its strike.
Altogether, Author Volmer has developed an interesting tale with many turns and surprising kinds of expression, some of them profound. Emaline, the Saloon owner and "mother hen" to many of the men who've gathered for gold, philosophically explains their quest as rampant ambition and a quest for freedom. "Freedom," she says, "in California is defined by a price, and its price is ambition. It is not enough simply to celebrate freedom, to dig a hole and hide it from harm or build up walls of rules, protecting your idea of what freedom should be while damning other versions. You have to invest in freedom, she thinks, to put it in the bank of blind faith and draw interest on strength and effort. Goals are dangled like bread to the starving, and you could find your self crawling, walking, running forward, grasping for cotton on the wind, not so much to catch it, but to call it your own, to say you tried and will keep on trying."
It is perhaps the sheer provocative nature of the story line that will hold you from cover to cover in "Crown of Dust." The unusualness of the mystery elements, "will she get rich?" "will she get found out? "how will her boyfriend who's attracted to her even though she's Alex, a "him" resolve the issue?"
Mary Volmer's "Crown of Dust" is guaranteed to keep you wondering about these things throughout this bizarre romp through the old west. For its obvious value as discussion topics, this book would make a great book club read.
Volmer's debut novel is a fun book set during a fascinating time and place. There are intrigues that keep you guessing throughout. It's a serious book dealing with relationships between men and women, slavery/racism, sexual identity, greed, crime but Volmer accomplishes this with lots of humor. It was a unique time in our history and she portrays it well.
I can't wait to see the movie
I liked the ending which finally gave hope for the young lady of the novel. In fact, having stuck it out by reading the book, the ending tied pieces
of the story together and made it more appealing.