Crown of Dust

Written by Mary Volmer
Review by Jessica Brockmole

The tiny mining town of Motherlode isn’t just another place to try one’s luck in Gold Rush California. It’s also a place to escape. Emaline, proprietress of the town’s only inn, knows most of the secrets. The only woman in Motherlode, she’s lover, mother, and confidante to the miners who drift through. The newest, Alex, is different from the other rough-and-ready miners. Emaline takes Alex under her wing, not knowing that the quiet, reclusive “boy” is really a young girl fleeing from her past. Alex carries her secrets tucked beneath her shapeless clothes, alongside the gold nugget she accidentally found one day. A gold nugget that brings unwanted attention to both Alex and Motherlode. As Emaline struggles to hold tight to the town she’s built, Alex struggles to hold tight to her new identity, that of a person strong enough to stop running and stand on her own two feet.

This is beautifully and unabashedly a character-driven novel. Through Alex and Emaline, we feel what it is to be a woman in the rough-and-ready man’s world of the Gold Rush. So alive are the miners that they threaten to swagger right off the page, knees caked with red dust, picks over their shoulders. In such a leisurely novel, details are savored and back stories are trickled in teasingly. But it never drags. Despite the simplicity of the prose and the starkness of the setting, the author has crafted a gorgeous debut, and I look forward to future novels.