Bay Area-based Mary Volmer was born in Grass Valley, and in her first novel she draws on the gold rush heritage of the area to tell the story of a little outpost called Motherlode, just this side of Rough and Ready and not that far from Nevada City. Millard Fillmore may be running for President, but the Queen of Motherlode is a woman named Emaline, plump proprietress of the Victoria Inn who prostitutes herself during the week and insists everyone show up to the chapel Sunday mornings to hear Preacher John, who is usually sober, at least then.
Then young Alex rides into town. Alex--Alexandra--is dressed as a young man; her parents dead, she is fleeing from her Gran, a woman with precious little tolerance for youthful desires and no compassion when those desires result in tragedy. So Alex is running away; she fools the gaggle of characters who frequent the tavern until one day, exploring an abandoned mining claim, she finds a gold nugget.
Lyon Books in Chico will host a free literary event with the author on Tuesday, November 16 at 7:00 p.m.
Volmer probes deeply. "Crown of Dust" ($24 in hardcover from Soho Press; $9.99 in Amazon Kindle e-book) is a brooding, compulsively readable tale of identity lost and won.
Alex grows restless maintaining her ruse. A man named David Trellona has entered the picture, "fresh out of Cornwall and thinkin' he knows more about mining than those Empire folks over in Grass Valley." If Alex has complicated feelings for David, David's feelings for Alex are even more complicated.
Yet, as Alex thinks about nature, "the camouflage, the deception, it was ubiquitous. A praying mantis posing as a branch, a moth holding motionless and leaf-like, a red water snake basking in the sun, impersonating river mud. She marvelled at the relief she felt at this revelation, as though nature had somehow exonerated her for posing as someone, something she was not." But relief does not last. A reporter comes to town, suspicious that Alex might be the Boy Bandit. And is Emaline protecting Jed, a runaway slave? Bullets will fly, and death will come to Motherlode. But through that death, Alex will find some small measure of redemption.