Crown of Dust has been on my goodreads “To Read” list for a couple of years, ever since I saw a review in the St. Mary’s College Magazine. The author, Mary Volmer, attended SMC at the same time I was there (I recall watching her play on the basketball team!). The story sounded intriguing and I wanted to support a fellow Gaels’ debut novel.
What an wonderful read! Volmer’s story is set in the California Gold Rush and specifically in the northern California region stretching from Sacramento to Volmer’s hometown of Grass Valley. This was fun for me as my husband was born and raised in Marysville (just north of Sacramento) and we visit that region regularly.
The protagonist is a young woman named Alex who has ventured west not to strike it rich but to escape her past. In order to reinvent herself, she masquerades as a young man and joins a motley crew of fellow gold diggers at the Victoria Inn. The inn is the center of a tiny town called Motherlode and run by the matriarch of the community, Emaline. Alex struggles to contain her secrets after striking gold as the little town begins to grow rapidly, bringing more women, law, and civilized society.
The aspect I most enjoyed in this book is the way Alex is able to establish a sense of home and family amongst a group of strangers, in a relatively short time. The contrast between her femininity and the very masculine spaces of gold mines, saloons, and brothels is striking. The two main characters are both women: Alex and Emaline, in a mostly male environment. The way they each have to compromise themselves to survive is harrowing.
As a Northern Californian, the Gold Rush has been a mysterious, mythical quality in my imagination. This story made that period of history come alive and feel relatable.
The writing is brilliant. Volmer’s descriptions are vivid and clear and the depth of research on the era shown through in several sections. Alex’s past is illuminated through short flashbacks that provide enough explanation for her emotional state without drawing the reader away from the main storyline. There are several characters who are struggling in this novel and the suspense builds until the very end.
I loved the ending to this book! It had a very fitting and fulfilling conclusion. Check it out. 🙂