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Foreword to the Collected Works of Ilonja Szieckwicz

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This is another piece from my college days. Perhaps under the influence of Nabokov’s Pale Fire, I tried to put together my own “unreliable academic” piece. It’s a pastiche of various elements that annoyed me when reading literary critical essays: useless Latinisms, untranslated quotations, assuming too great a familiarity with the author’s works, careless and unsupported scholarship, an editor that seems to frankly dislike (or be jealous) of the author, and flights of speculative fancy that go too far.

I had a lot of fun “translating” this into an Esperanto short story, “Antaŭparolo al la Plena Verkaro de Yvette Swithmoor.” Esperanto culture provided its own set of academic conventions, “favorite horses,” and literary stereotypes. I think the story is more successful in Esperanto, perhaps because I was closer to the target I was aiming for. The Esperanto version also includes a suggestion that the editor fabricated the author’s entire ouevre [right there in the title!], which doesn’t come across in the English precursor.

Foreword to the Collected Works of Ilonja Szieckwicz

While the writer Ilonja Szieckwicz (1835?-1879?) is unknown to the vast majority of even educated scholars des lettres, her novels Guard Towers and Forty-Six Visions of a Mitotic Life, as well as selected poems and letters, have now become widely available to English-speakers in the present volume.

Compiling a list of literary influences on the works of Sziwieck is difficult. Her works generally do not make use of foreign tongues, except for a few Latinisms scattered a priori. But we can perhaps assume that she knew Polish (as Poland exerted a large influence in the area) and had perhaps read Mieckiewicz’s Dziady, a play in which the character of Konrad is featured prominently, as in Guard Towers. I hold with certain others that many of Konrad’s speeches in Guard Towers borrow largely from Mickiewicz’s works, but this theory has not gained wide acceptance. In her school years, Sziewick most likely learned Russian and was thereby exposed to the cult of Pushkin and his Eugene Onegin, the official religion of Russia (“ymom rossia nye ponyat”). Some of Onegin’s relationship with Tatyana comes out in Elster’s courting of Natasha (some would say too much). In one letter to her sister, Sziwekicz mentions that she has read Tolstoy, but denounces his works as “sozsyem tre plokega” (a comment to which I take particular affront, but I shall let it pass as a private remark made without forethought for future scholars). As for religion, allusions seem to be of the very pedestrian type that run en mass in Judeo-Christian literature.

All of this speculation on religion and literary influences is based on close readings of her works, since Szieckwicz’s life is not well documented. We know, after extensive research conducted in Estonia and parts of Latvia, that families by the name of Sziewick lived in Gadki, Pustoy, and Ostarozhna, but most scholars agree, based on certain details of architecture in the novels, that Ilonja’s branch of the Sziewicz’s lived in Jablika, about ten miles from Gadki. Sziwieck is herself elusive when speaking of her family and writes to Hans Birchmann in 1872:

“Do ich ne mogu parbolshe pri mia cemya ot tiom, kiom ich scii, ich ja mogu skazhat.”

From his extensive analysis conducted in church basements in Jablika, Matich found a marriage certificate that he believes represents Sziwieicz’s parents, dated 1834, and a birth certificate, dated 1835 (quite an anus mirablus in itself), for an unnamed female child of the same surname. There also seems to have been another child in the family, Olga, three years Ilonja’s junior; this matches a detail gleaned from one of Sziwiecz’s letters, written to an Olga in 1878:

“Menich tri god pli staraya ol’ vi, senkonechya.”

In Jablika then can we find the unhappy prison-school of the third vision of mitotic life (see pages 334-347), the cathedral to which Sosha runs for sanctuary while being pursued by cannibals (pages 115-118), and the unpaved streets along which Konrad crawls, nose in the mud, sniffing for the Spice of Infinite Time (pages 12-49). Of course, there are still scholars who put forth the argument that Sziwieck lived in Palivek, though this is clearly ludicrous, judging by her use of dialect, or even in Dunchekskia (an even more preposterous supposition, one possessing only those “lacking in the reason which divides man from beast”). Matich, at first one of the great Sziwiecz scholars, was driven mad after years spent in church basements (see above) and, in later life, claimed that Sziewieck was in fact English and had written a forty-seventh vision of a mitotic life. But these assertions are clearly instances of insanity—”o what a noble mind is here o’erturned!”

There is no record of Schiweicz ever “going at last to husband,” and no mention in any of her letters of a husband or children or even “wee sleeket hause beasties.” Her affairs “of the coin and purse” are a mystery—her father, a cobbler, could not have left much behind in his will, nor are there pleas for money in any of her collected correspondences. While Szieiwiecz could have lived by patronage, this seems unlikely, given her place of residence and the state of the country at the time, in medium res. Most likely, she was a simple laborer or farmer by day and writer by night, though Nussbaum, in his none-too-scholarly monograph on Sziewivcz, reading too much into the more graphic passages in the Visions, suggests that she lived as a common prostitute. I find such suggestions distasteful and hesitate to even share them with the gentle reader, lest he get the wrong idea.

In mining Sciwiez’s novels for her biography, we find that one of the premier observatia is thus: she seems to have been a rather unstable person, prone to episodes of melancholy, panic, and confused thinking—her prose from such times is unsettling. Her deepest periods of melancholy, full of strum und drang, generate a prose that is seemingly nonsensical, but through careful readings and prolonged exegesis, much of it has been elucidated. See especially my work Binded in a Nutshell: Szkiewicz and the Troubled Mind, Nussbaum’s chapter on Szchiweich is his Lesser-Known Women Writers in Late 19th Century Estonian-Latvian Literature, and parts of Mendelfarher’s “Screw the World, Give Me a Beer!” The Proletarian Sensibilities of Poetics of Estonia-Latvia. In one of Szieiwieczh’s most personal correspondences to her sister, we have an account of an episode of paralysis, a time when Sziwhiecz found herself unable to move, and, as she described, thinking about nothing:

“Tiam ich mogla nechevo fari, nechevo movi, nechevo pensi. Estis odin ot mayick plej plokega vremi. La mir chesis cya dredeli i ich estis odna denove vo la holodnost moeymu tserb.”

It is not often in the letters that Sziwkeiwick is so touching, so reflective.

The average scholar, ignorant of Szieckwicz’s background or works (eh, hypocrite lectur?), may find it odd that we have such a complete collection of her writings yet know so little about her life. This average scholar cannot therefore guess how tenuous our link with Szieiwieciz is, or how close we came to losing this valuable literary figure forever to the “sand of time.” The world’s very acquaintance with Szieiwcz’s writings owes itself to a happy accident, a “wind of fortune in life’s great sails.” A cleaning woman in a Bucharest rail station in 1985 uncovered a leather suitcase lodged behind a commode. While the suitcase was badly damaged, apparently by befouled water leaking from the commode, the bundle of papers inside was legible, though soiled. The cleaning woman took the case to her supervisor, who then dumped the contents into the wastebin. Ah, if that supervisor had only known the worth of those beshitted papers! Fortunately for us critics, the inquisitive trashman, a Latvian immigrant, possessed a good knowledge of Sciwieck’s dialect. He eagerly read the manuscripts, even making translations of a few of her poems and shorter prose pieces into Romanian, beginning Scziweich’s greater introduction into the literary world. Here is a list of the contents of the suitcase, which now forms the complete canon of Sziewick’s work:

A six hundred fifteen (615) page manuscript entitled Garantaj Turi [Guard Towers]

This work is written entirely in pencil. There is evidence of about three dozen corrections to the document, all made in black ink, in the same handwriting as the original.

A forty-six (46) page manuscript under the title of Kvardecyat Shect Posmotriyies al Miomiti Zhiv [Forty-Six Visions of a Mitotic Life]

This manuscript is presented entirely on very large sheets of paper in a phenomenally small handwriting, without correction. In this English volume, the translation of Forty-Six Visions of a Mitotic Life comprises over six hundred pages. Fitting so much writing onto forty-six pieces of paper is a feat in itself, and when one considers that these forty-six pages contain some of the finest prose ever to emerge from Estonia and parts of Latvia, this manuscript is even more incredible, a magnus opum. The seventh page is written in red ink, the rest in green.

Six (6) poems of varying quality, each written one-to-a-sheet in a fine hand

Evidence of thorough self-editing. The sheet containing the poem “Kracnii Kroot” is torn in the lower right corner without affecting the text. The sheet with “Plocka Scio,” a mediocre work, is damaged apparently by fire, leaving the conclusion to the reader’s imagination and scholar’s interpretation. Perhaps a final stanza would have catapulted this work into greater prominence, but an answer to this hypothesis is impossible; “the key turns once in the lock only!”

Eighty-seven (87) letters, dating from 1864 to 1879

All are without envelopes and, according to the statements of the Latvian trashman, were originally clustered together by sender—seventeen sent to Szikeweech’s sister Olga, forty sent to a Mr. Hans Birchmann, twenty-two to a lady by the name of Galya Simirova, and the remaining to a mysterious Konrad. These letters have often aroused much debate among Sciweicz scholars—after all, if the letters were sent to different recipients, how have they all arrived in this suitcase? My theory, presented at the 3rd International Sciweizch Conference on June 30th, 1996, and reprinted in Eastern European Literary Controversies 114 (Fall 1997), has met with some acceptance, despite jeers from the ignorati. Let us remember that Konrad, Hans, and Galya are all mentioned in Guard Towers or Forty-Six Visions of a Mitotic Life—Konrad has a large role in Guard Towers, while Hans and Galya are bit players in the Visions. It seems most likely that these letters were, in fact, meant to be “sent” to the fictional characters. Their content is highly disorganized, filled with phrases and ideas that later appear in the larger works. It is as if Siewicezk were “working out” her novels in these fictional correspondences, and then saving these letters, either for inspiration, historical record, or for eventual inclusion in the printed versions of Guard Towers or the Visions. The letters to Olga are of an entirely different nature. They span the entire duration of correspondence and seem to be of a fairly routine nature—cold comments on life and living, the price of bread. There is little about the novels, except for a few brief references which help us place their composition chronologically. It seems Guard Towers was written primarily during the summer and early fall of 1870, and the Visions begun in late November of that same year, though only one chapter was written at that time. Most scholars agree that this single chapter was the one written in red ink, numbered as the seventh vision. The remaining chapters were written between 1872 and 1878. The final letter to Olga is dated October 30, 1879. My theory as mentioned above postulates that just after this date, Sziwiecz collected all of her novels, poems, and letters to Konrad, Hans, and Galya, and caused them all to be delivered to her sister (perhaps in the mysterious suitcase?), at which time the correspondences collected by Olga over 15 years were added to the accumulated materials. Some critics, because of certain circumstantial evidence, assert that Olga was not, in fact, a real person—that Sziwieckz wrote to her just as she wrote to Konrad or Hans or Galya, as a means of exorcising her own demons. It is true that no replies from Olga have been discovered, but absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Somehow, all of these manuscripts and letters were preserved from 1879 to 1985. If Ilonja did not send them to Olga, perhaps Olga collected them from Ilonja’s residence sometime after 1879—most likely, Ilonja died shortly after her last letter to Olga, but her grave and epitaph are “forgotten to all human memory.”

An untitled prose piece

This is the most mysterious of all Sziwieckz’s works and is dated October 31, 1879. It consisted of a single piece of hide (most likely sheepskin, though possibly from some large flightless bird), inscribed with a dark red ink. The handwriting matched all of the other documents recovered from that fateful suitcase, but this piece was clearly composed very quickly—the script was rushed, and there were no corrections made. I say “consisted” and “matched” and “made” because this piece of history has been lost, having quickly and mysteriously decayed following the recovery of the manuscripts. Fortunately, early scholars did their utmost to faithfully transcribe the contents and describe the form of this piece, and we have a reasonably good image of the whole. Since it is so brief, I shall provide the entire piece here (the translation is my own):

Then one night, I was visited by a woman clothed in green robes and leaves. She took my hand and led me out into the night. I was very small. There were many tall women with arms like branches held high in the air. And there were others in the sky, whispering delicate music on the air. In the water, too, were wispy forms of female figures—their long hair appeared to be no more than the slight wake of their smooth motion through the water. I could hear them all, speak their languages, and jump to fly or splash to swim or totter to dance.

And three years passed as the sun slowly crept into the night, and I could see light running between the blades of grass that didn’t seem as tall and gentle as they once did. Then a piercing scream shattered the last fragments of night, and with the sun came a tiny animal covered in blood, like nothing ever before in this world, and it was screaming, and then it was suddenly quiet. The dryads by their trees (I had since learned the name of the old spirits of our land) had stopped dancing, and the naiads stopped playing in the waters, and the sylphs paused in the air for the screaming and for the silence afterwards. And after a time, all the action began again, but somewhat sadder than before. And I never saw that animal again, never except in nightmares.

Then I knew of the blood in my own body, and I looked into it and saw hundreds of men and women wiggling in red slime. They followed patterns that bore nothing of happiness or ecstasy, only of an inevitable end.

And I tried desperately to find the songs and rhythms of the spirits of the old world in their former joys and strengths. I licked the salt of time from the waves of the water but it was bitter, and I climbed the watchtower, plagued by thieves, to feel the failing breeze in my hair, and I spun in endless circles to dance, but I felt sick.

And day by day, the sun traversed the sky, crossed the zenith, and began to fall towards the opposite shore. I knew that the sylphs’ songs were becoming softer, and I understood less of their whispered words. The naiads’ water was becoming dull and still, and the dryads’ dances were slowing. Some days, I found myself stopped, unable to move, and my brain felt empty, but slowly again it would resume the hollow rhythm of life that fewer spirits upheld, since many them had already vanished, gone to somewhere I was not privileged to see. And one day I felt that the sun was about to disappear into the red-orange abyss of the bottom of the earth.

I saw before me a long, low building made of smooth stone, and I went inside. There was a great noise. A hundred people talking rapidly in a language I refused to know. From the distant horizon was a whistle which frightened the few remaining sylphs and made them fly in timid circles. And I saw the dragon eye of a great iron beast rumbling towards me, but as the beast came closer I saw that the eye was unblinking, then I saw it was a lamp. The beast rolled to a stop before me, and against all will, I climbed aboard. And another whistle rang harshly in my ears, and the beast with me inside began moving forward, slowly at first, then faster, away from the low building of featureless stone.

From my head I pulled my brain, and I placed it beneath my chair. And you who animate from beyond the grave what should have been consigned to die will not find it there! Corpse dancers! Begetters of monsters! Then I could move no longer and stared silently out of the window, and I thought of nothing. I saw the last of the dryads renounce their trees and begin to float upwards, and I saw the naiads shake off their watery cloaks and join the dryads, and I saw the sylphs join hands with the naiads and the dryads, and I saw the last of the old spirits depart my weary life.

Perhaps I should apologize to the ignorant reader. You have faithfully and correctly begun his adventures in the present volume with the Foreword, only to encounter this piece of turgid and frankly amateur prose. It might have been the inspiration for a thousand insipid and lamentable acoustic rock songs, were it not recently discovered in a bus station. Who knows, though? Maybe there’s something still to suck from those symbolic sentences.

I do not hold that this document represented Sziwieickcz’s best writing. In particular, I am bothered by the somewhat wearied metaphor of life’s journey as the progress of the day’s sun. And by 1879, Scziwiecz certainly would have been familiar with trains, train stations, etc. and the tiresome “train as iron beast” idea seems artificial, as if she wanted to pretend that she did not know of trains at all. Also, the frequent use of “and” grates on the ear as overly biblical, perhaps a final attempt at self-sympathy or a resignation to some “inevitable fate.”

The importance of this piece to Schizecwh scholarship, though often overblown, is nevertheless rather great. As is so often the case with such symbolic and confused manuscripts, we scholars, with our knowledge of the future, tend to read as prophecy words that are only the frantic writings of a fading genius. Some of the more romantic among Sziwiecz’s critics hold that this prose piece reflects a deep spirituality, a hope for escape from the dreary world even if it meant (creative?) death. The ever-inventive Moroson even proposes that Sziwieicz was indeed taken away like Enoch into the bosom of the eternal. I hold with many others on a much more terrestrial theory: this is Sziwiecz’s suicide note, her embrace of “what dreams can come” when “we have shuffled from this mortal coil.” But it is not our place to create a history or legend where none existed before. Whether her soul took flight with the spirits of the old world is a matter for theologians, not for literary critics.

Written by timwestover

October 3rd, 2011 at 2:41 pm

Posted in Short Stories

Book Review: “American Lightning” by Howard Blum

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American Lightning by Howard Blum

"American Lightning" by Howard Blum

Blum’s “American Lightning” is a work of popular history, in the vein of Simon Winchester or Erik Larson, but Blum’s book is neither as readable or entertaining as those he’s trying to imitate. Blum attempts to weave together three threads: Billy Burns investigating the bombing of the Los Angeles Time’s building, the contemporary life of Clarence Darrow, who will represent the bombers at their trial, and the early film career of D.W. Griffith.

The Burns sections make up a good, procedure detective story, rather like an episode of Law & Order. Burns and his operatives collect clues, interview witnesses, tail suspects, and finally get their men (probably). The stage is set for a showdown between capital and labor, embodied in the trial of the bombers. Unfortunately for future novelistic-historians, the trial ends with a whimper, and so does the book.

This is only a third of the book, though. The other two stories have interesting moments, but are disconnected from the whole. Clarence Darrow defends the bombers at their trial, but the book spends far too much time on his complicated professional and personal life in the years before the trial, which is unnecessary to understand the main tale. Similarly, the story of D. W. Griffith and early Hollywood has interesting moments, but it even more disconnected from the main thread of the “plot.” As far as I can tell, the only points of connection between Griffith and Burns are (1) that they briefly collaborated once on a different case and (2) that the labor unions, aiming for sympathy for the bombers, who are connected with organized labor, made their own film. Their propaganda piece was inspired by Griffith’s idea that “movies could be polemical” (apparently an idea that he invented, according to Blum), but Griffith was not involved in the film that was made about the bombers.

Omitting the stories of Griffith and Darrow would have made for a shorter, tighter book. The main “plot” is fascinating (almost more by what didn’t happen and what could have happened), but “American Lightning” is overlong, over-stuffed, and too disconnected to be a leading example of the “popular history” genre.

Written by timwestover

September 24th, 2011 at 8:21 pm

Posted in Reviews

Book Review: “Georgia Curiosities” by William Schemmel

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Georgia Curiosities by William Schemmel

"Georgia Curiosities" by William Schemmel

I’ve probably read twenty books in the “Weird Georgia” genre. They are all more or less the same: collections of odd people, places, and historical events from Georgia’s past. A little Civil War, some ghost stories, some historical markers, some birthplaces of famous people. Half for tourists on the road, half armchair traveler’s guide.

A lot of the stories in this book are found in other books as well, but I think “Georgia Curiosities” does a very good job collecting a large representative sample of diverse stories and places to visit. Most of the highlights from other similar books are present here, and I was surprised that “Georgia Curiosities” actually had a few unique stories and places to share. It was worth reading just for its dozen or so new curiosities.

The writing is, like all book in the genre, adequate. Sometimes, it comes across as too glib or trying too hard to be funny or clever. But it doesn’t get in the way of the stories or locations.

If you’re only going to read one book in the genre, you could do worse than “Georgia Curiosities.”

Written by timwestover

September 24th, 2011 at 8:18 pm

Posted in Reviews

Book Review: “Gilead” by Marilynne Robinson

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Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

"Gilead" by Marilynne Robinson

I don’t normally read quiet historical books about aging rural preachers in Iowa writing to their young children. None of the themes — intergenerational conflicts, small-town religion and morals, racial politics, or even the landscape of Iowa — are interesting to me. But I loved Gilead.

Gilead is a very quiet book. It’s not brash, dramatic, or exciting, but it is still compelling. The narrator is exceedingly pleasant and friendly, though not ingratiating, which makes his one prejudice seem both irrational and intriguing. His insights are thoughtful without being preachy (which is a trick for a book about a preacher), and thought the epistolary / “letters to my child who can’t read them” format could be grating, Robinson succeeds at avoiding the treacly traps.

I was a little disappointed at the end; the final reveal seemed a bit anti-climactic, perhaps a little too moral and too neat, without room for moral ambiguity. But for a quiet book that does not trade or highs or lows, the ending was probably fitting.

Written by timwestover

September 24th, 2011 at 8:16 pm

Posted in Reviews

Book Review: “Atlantic” by Simon Winchester

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Atlantic by Simon Winchester

"Atlantic" by Simon Winchester

The best Winchester books read like great novels: they are character-driven, with surprising plot turns, and unfold linearly, like a good story. “Atlantic” is none of these things, and yet it is still an enjoyable read. Winchester’s vague structure framework groups broad themes together: economic activity, exploration, geology, military conflict, politics, and more. He begins with the formation of the world and continues through the modern day, aiming to cover most areas of human interaction with the Atlantic, so he earns one star at least for the Titanic-sized ambition.

Many of Winchester’s stories and themes are familiar from other history and pop-history books: the first Europeans to cross the Atlantic, the Middle Passage of slavery, the Falkland Islands conflict, the early Portuguese navigators, cod fishing, global warming. At times, the stories go pretty far inland, and some are weighed down by over-long descriptive passages of the grayness of the sea.

Some of his claims are, as others have said, a bit of a stretch: I found his hinting that the Atlantic Ocean was responsible for parliamentary government (because Iceland had the first one) to seem particularly far-fetched.

However, in the final tally, stitching together all these stories in one book, which does move fairly quickly from topic to topic, is entertaining enough, and good panorama of human activity on the Atlantic Ocean.

In reading Winchester’s latest, I was reminded of Bill Bryson’s latest, “At Home.” Like Bryson’s book, “Atlantic” is bound together by a loose framework, switches stories, and feels disconnected. Yet almost every anecdote is entertaining: some personal, some ancient, some modern, some vast, some small.

Written by timwestover

September 24th, 2011 at 8:13 pm

Posted in Reviews

Book Review: “Let’s Play White” by Chesya Burke

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Lets Play White by Chesya Burke

Let's Play White by Chesya Burke

Children with eerie powers. Powerful women, some with command of hoodoo. Blood. Dead babies. These are the recurring elements in Chesya Burke’s “Let’s Play White.” I had heard these stories described “horror”, but I think “macabre magical realism” might be a better description. The stories are not pleasant, but many are quite powerful.

Several of her stories are non-genre stories with an eerie twist. “Walter and the Three-Legged King” is a social-economic story that happens to feature a talking rat in a key role. “I Make People Do Bad Things” is a gangland-style tale of whore houses and numbers games, and a little girl’s eerie powers are the most powerful weapon. “Chocolate Park” is a story of drugs, prostitution, and revenge that’s enacted by hoodoo.

Violence is very present in all of Burke’s stories here — even very depraved violence — but the violence is not particularly graphic. She doesn’t linger over the depravity, but she doesn’t shy from it. I wouldn’t recommend reading all the stories in one sitting, as I did: the violence loses its effectiveness from repetition.

Burke’s stories at times make use of African (and African-American) folklore, and her characters are usually black, but the plots don’t turn on race. Because the book was framed with quotes from Dunbar and DuBois, I thought that race was going to play a larger role. Even the title, “Let’s Play White,” announces some kind of racial opposition or masquerade that I just didn’t feel was terribly present in the stories. I don’t see this as a positive or negative; there is room for literature that confronts racial issues, and there is room for literature that has black folklore and black characters without becoming all about race. I feel that Burke’s collection belongs to the latter.

A few of her stories fall short for me. “CUE: Change,” a lighter zombie story, feels out-of-place. “The Room Where Ben Disappeared” feels like a Victorian ghost story, but without weight. “The Light of Cree” is too short to make much of an impact. And “Purse” (also very short) feels like a bad student writing exercise. That’s four of the eleven stories, but the bulk of the page count is in the remaining seven, which I think are more successful.

Burke is at her best when she gives herself time to develop full characters. “Walter and the Three-Legged King” does this quickly and economically; “I Make People Do Bad Things” and “The Teachings and Redemption of Ms. Fannie Lou Mason” are longer. This last story is the standout of the collection — it visits all her recurring themes (children with eerie powers, powerful women, dead babies, and violence), but does so against a backdrop of real character progression and a well-realized setting.

Written by timwestover

September 23rd, 2011 at 8:07 pm

Posted in Reviews

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Twitter: @timwestover

Written by timwestover

September 21st, 2011 at 2:44 pm

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A Spectacle

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This was a short I wrote back in college. I present it more or less unchanged, because I am partial to singing trees. There’s one at the University of California, San Diego, and there’s one in Auraria, too.

A Spectacle

It’s sixty years now since I’ve worked at the bakery, so it’s been at least that long since the singing tree was run out of town by an angry mob hurling fruit and fire. I was still a young man, only an apprentice, and my fingers didn’t have the touch for making the perfect pie, croissant, fritter, doughnut, cruller, or even simple pierogie. I was so poor then, just like they say in the proverb: poor as a baker’s dough boy. When I left the bakery and got a fruit stall, I could take in over fifty zlotys at the market on a good day. The money’s one reason I decided to give up on the baking—that, and I had no talent. I made maybe 50 groshes a week as an apprentice, ten measly groshes for each day I spent cracking eggs, pouring milk, sweating at the oven. What a sight I must have been!

But at least one girl didn’t mind that I was always finding clumps of flour behind my ears—my darling Greta. On Thursdays I would take her to a picture show, and it was always my groshes that bought the tickets (this is how she saved up her money, I’ve come to realize—by making me pay!). Her favorite fellow was that singer-actor Dasha Pavlovski, and we saw all of his films, even the one with the elephant and the ice skates. Greta was a serving girl at a restaurant, and ours was the typical love story—a poor baker’s apprentice and a serving girl find happiness in each other’s arms, but I had a nagging sensation that if Dasha had ever come to town, he could have stolen away my Greta with a sigh and a few flat notes.

It turns out he did almost come to town once. It was late March, and I left the shop after noon, sticky with butter and eggs. As I was walking home, I took a detour down Vronski Prospect, where the theaters put up their posters. If I had missed the latest Pavlovski film, Greta would’ve killed me. So I always kept my eyes open.

There was a crowd around one of the posters, and I pushed up to the front. Huge green letters jumped out at me: “One Night Only: The Amazing Fabulous Dasha Pavlovski!” I ran to Greta’s restaurant and found her rushing around with drinks.

“Greta,” I said, out of breath. “Greta, he’s coming here!”

“Who?” she said, not even turning to look at me. “Who are you talking about?”

“Dasha Pavlovski! He’s coming to town! One night only!”

The four mugs in Greta’s arms fell to the floor and shattered. A shower of beer leapt upwards and outwards and sparkled in the firelight, but no sparkling beer cascade could match the twinkling in Greta’s eyes. She looked at me with such tenderness and affection, her mouth cracked into a radiant smile, and she flung her arms towards me.

“Oooooooooooooooo, Dasha!” she squealed, and gave me such a tight bearhug that my eyes watered.

Is now a good time to mention that I couldn’t stand Dasha Pavlovski? I’d seen every movie that he’d ever been in, even the one with the elephant and the whistling broom. He had this stupid grin that I found repulsive. And his voice was terrible, I think. He did this thing with his hat that’s very annoying, and he couldn’t act worth a single grosho. Give me an American show any day.

“Ooooooooooooooo, we must go, we must, we must, we must!”

I shuddered at having to sit through several hours of Pavlovski in person, but there was no way out of this mess or out of Greta’s embrace. On the life of our firstborn, I swore to Greta that I would go the next morning as soon as the box office opened to buy the best tickets I could. As I stuffed my hands back into my pockets on the cold walk home, I thought of how my fingers would be warmed by the hands of my darling as she sweated in glee at the show—that is, if she wasn’t wildly applauding every minute for some seductive clearing of the throat or tip of the hat.


I knew there’d be a crowd at the box office, so I arrived before sunrise, but there was already a line. A hushed whispering of men ran up and down the impatient column: “I can’t believe it’s costing me five zlotys to take the missus to see some singing buffoon!”

My heart froze in my chest. Five zlotys? I barely had two, especially since two weeks ago Greta and I had gone for the double feature and then split a mushroom pie afterwards (all on my bill, of course). I don’t like mushrooms. They’re grey, and no food should be grey. Good foods are green or red or yellow or maybe brown, but not grey. The chatter of the cold men around me confirmed my fears: tickets were each two and a half zlotys. I pulled all the coins out of my pocket, but I didn’t even have enough for one ticket. Glumly, I got out of line and watched as the long column snaked forwards and dissipated into grumbling individuals, muttering “Five zlotys, five zlotys.”

They could mutter because they had the five zlotys, and their girls weren’t going to break them when they got home.


“Greta!” I cried.

Greta didn’t slacken her grip on my arm. “What, you miserable weasel?”

“Greta, I have a plan!”

Greta did slacken her grip on my arm, but only a little bit.

“We can sneak in.”

“Sneak in? Isn’t that dishonest?”

“Well, yes, but it’s Dasha Pavlovski.”

Greta promptly turned to a quivering jelly. I returned my sore arm to a more comfortable position. “What’s your plan?” she said.

“Cousin Mikhail has a friend who works at the theatre. He can let us in.”

“But we won’t have seats. The show’s sold out, and the ushers won’t let us through without a ticket.”


“But we won’t have seats. The show’s sold out, and the ushers won’t let us through without a ticket,” I explained to Cousin Mikhail’s friend.

“Is she skinny?” said the friend.


“Your lady friend,” he said.

“Why? And how do you know I have a lady friend?”

“Only ladies want to go see Dasha. I haven’t seen a guy yet who cared. Did you see that film with the elephant and the whistling broom? Awful, right? But the ladies could overlook that, because there was Dasha. And the guys overlooked it, because there were their lady friends. Circle of life, see. So, is your lady skinny?”

“No, not really,” I said.

“Is she fat?”

“Look, why are you asking?”

“Answer me. Is she fat?”

“I don’t know. She’s not fat. I mean, she’s not really fat.”

“Is she this fat?” he said, holding his arms apart at about the width of a wine barrel.

“No, not that fat.”

“Is she claustrophobic?”


“I’m not doing that,” said Greta, not loosening her grip on my arm.

“Honey, honey, I already gave him two zlotys, and he’s got the watch my papa left me as a guarantee on the rest. We can’t back out. It’s the only way.”

“The only way?” she said, sniffing.

“The only way,” I said.

“Well, if I have to sneak in to the sold-out theatre and crawl through an air vent to get above the stage and risk my good name and sense of decency and that’s the only way to see Dasha Pavlovski, then I’ll do it!” She thrust her arms out in a gesture of victory, letting me go. I ran off to wrap up my very sore arm.


The night of the show, Greta and I dressed up in our very best. We met Cousin Mikhail’s friend at the side entrance, and he showed us to the air vent that was at the top of a iron stairwell. Greta was, in person, perhaps a teeny tiny bit larger than I had remembered, and getting her into the vent was more difficult than I’d thought. In fairness, I must say that I was no stranger to the baker’s treats, and the passage wasn’t especially comfortable for me either.

Once inside, I realized that Cousin Mikhail’s friend had taken advantage of many devoted husbands and boyfriends, since the air vent was filled with sneezing fans of Dasha Pavlovski. There was a general moaning mixed with curse words and snippets of angry conversation.

“I feel sick,” I heard a voice say near me. I didn’t recognize at first that it was Greta.

“I’m sorry, dear, but maybe when you hear Dasha, you’ll feel better.”

“I feel really sick. I think I’m going to throw up,” said a voice that wasn’t Greta’s, but this voice did sound quite ill, and it was very close to me.

We waited in the vent for what seemed like an eternity. Greta and I had wiggled our way to a grating that allowed us to peek down onto the stage. Our view was not the best, but Greta seemed excited enough, even though her eyes were puffy and watery from the dust. I gave her my handkerchief.

Below us began a roar, and the sound grew louder and louder. There were stompings of feet, clappings of hands, and then a well-dressed man strode out onto the stage. The curtains hadn’t yet opened, and the lights were on.

“Is that him?” I whispered, confused.

“I can’b really bell,” mumbled Greta. I could barely understand her. “I can’b see bery well.”

“Would it help if I scooted over?” I asked.

Greta sneezed. “No, nob really.”

“Ladies and gentlemen!” cried the voice from far beneath us. “Ladies and gentlemen, I have a great announcement!” The speaker stood at the edge of the stage, and I could hear something shaky in his voice. I didn’t know if he was nervous or excited. “Ladies and gentlemen!” he said for a third time. “I am at once the bearer of bad news and of extraordinary news. The bad news is that Dasha Pavlovski will not be appearing this evening.” Here, a great groan issued from the assembled masses. The air vent contracted in one great brow of woe, and Greta stopped breathing (maybe this was from a dust allergy, but a quick blow to her back, and she gasped, and seemed to be fine). “Ladies and gentlemen, please, please! We have something far more exciting for you tonight! A true marvel! The eighth wonder of the world! A vision beyond your imagination! A treat for the eyes and ears, an awakening to the beauties of our universe! A clarion call from the heavenly spheres, a spectacle to touch your mind, your heart, and your soul! I assure you, ladies and gentlemen, that there are no tricks or ‘special effects’ in the marvelous wonder you are about to witness. Please welcome, a truly splendid sight directly from the pages of antiquity! The Arabs in their great tales have sung of such marvels as you are about to witness on stage right now! Please welcome the wondrous, the spectacular Singing Tree!”

The announcer began to clap wildly, but he was alone. After a moment, he stopped and hurried off the stage. A squeaking sound of moving curtains rattled in the silent hall and wafted up as high as us desperate people in the air vent.

“Whab’s goinb onb?” whispered Greta.

“I don’t know…” I began, but then I saw it. It was a tree on stage, perhaps ten meters tall. There wasn’t any soil or a pot—the tree’s roots skittered across the stage in a skillful, graceful way, and the tree pulled itself up to the spotlight. The branches dipped low to the ground, and then the tree straightened up again. I heard a cough come from below, as if the tree were clearing its throat. Then, it began to sing in a syrupy tenor:

A story of sweet love I
Tell, dear my friends!
And should words fail, I’m sorry but
Shan’t make amends.
See a young boy, with his heart filled with
Much love (what else?).
In’is head (rash it was) he hears naught
But wedding bells.
When his eyes oft glances to
A girl (fair dame!),
His heart beats like a metronome.
(Has he no shame?)
But there’s one, oh yes, there’s one so
And glad ‘n lively, and to not love her
He’d be a fool.
The groom—baker; the bride—bar maid.
(I’ve heard it all before.)
And all’s well, and all’re happy, yes.
(Ord’ner’y bore!)
But strife! the wife takes delight in
A singer man.
And doom! the groom follows suit, and
Goes for whom’e can…
Oh! can it be a little bit
Of jealousy?
A fight, a tiff, and argument:
This’s prophecy!

At this point, I heard a woman’s battle cry, and a large, red, half-eaten tomato sailed through the air. I saw the explosion of gooey red seeds before I heard the satisfying squelch. Honestly, though, the song wasn’t the most hideous thing I’d ever heard. In fact, the tree wasn’t half-bad for an evergreen. But I wouldn’t go so far as to call myself a fan. In the papers a week later, I read an editorial which argued that the tree had a wonderful voice, but that critic must have attended the performance of a different singing tree. But it was a damn sight better than seeing Dasha Pavlovski’s twinkling blue eyes and listening to his cursed crooning.

The first fruit opened the way to a full volley. Tomatoes, cabbages, apples, lemons, rhubarb, asparagus, grapes, mangos, oranges—anything in reach the crowd began to throw at the performer, who tried to bravely finish a few more stanzas, but its voice was cracking.

Can weather they the trial that’s
No, they whine, and so split ways, just
As suspected!

“Let’s chop it down!” cried one angry voice from nearby.

“No, let’s burn it!” cried another, angrier voice. This was Greta’s.

“Yes, burn it!” echoed the very ill voice.

“Burn it! Burn it! Burn it!” was the chant picked up by the sooty mob in the vent, and the crowd below, momentarily confused by the many voices coming from overhead, quickly joined in. “Burn it! Burn it! Burn it!”

The singing tree at last let its voice die on the wind and let out a whimper. It rustled its branches in apprehension and began dragging itself off stage, throwing root over root in a most ingenious manner. But someone had already set a bundle of papers alight, and others around the flame held out pieces of chair, stage, carpet—anything that could burn. The tree, confused and panicked, began pulling even faster until it was entirely backstage. Greta pushed her way out of the air vent, down the stairs, and into theatre proper, and I followed her. We joined the torch-brandishing mob flooded out of the doors and began searching for the tree.

“Over here!” someone shouted, and the mob turned onto Vronski Prospect. The tree wasn’t far ahead of us, but we didn’t seem to be gaining on it. I’ve never seen a tree move so fast. The tree led the mob through the marketplace, and though the vendors’ stalls were closed, there was plenty of rotten fruit in the gutters. Blackish shapes flew through the night air and squelched against the trunk of the fleeing tree with an icky, sticky noise. The black smoke rising from the mob’s torches made me cough and certainly didn’t help Greta’s condition, but everyone continued to nurse the flames, nurse their revenge against the singing tree.

“Greeeeeeeeta!” I whined. “Do we have to do this?”

“Be quiet and keep running!”

By the time the tree and mob had reached the edge of town, most of the torches had died, and the tree was far ahead of even the best runners. I was very out of breath and had been begging Greta that we slow down, and as we reached the last houses on Vronski Prospect, she slowed to a walk, then stopped. The mob slowed, grumbled, and broke apart, the lust for justice beaten by weariness. Greta refused to hold my hand, so we just stood there, watching the tree scamper into the distance.

Greta shook her fist defiantly in air. “And stay out, you bum!”


“And that was the closest I came to seeing Dasha Pavlovski in person, thank goodness.”

“Grandpa, you tell that story too much!” said little Mateko. “Grandma Greta doesn’t like it.”

Anja chimed in, “Yeah, don’t tell us that boring one! Tell us the one about the elephant and the whistling broom!”

Written by timwestover

September 21st, 2011 at 2:39 pm

Posted in Short Stories

Auraria: First Five Pages

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These are the first five pages of Auraria, a Novel.

Holtzclaw rechecked his traveling bag—all the money was still there. The thousands of dollars in federal notes were just ordinary paper, but the gold coins were the strangest he had ever seen. Instead of the customary eagles and shields, they were stamped with images of bumblebees, terrapins, chestnut trees, and indistinct figures by a stream. Perhaps they were bathing, perhaps panning for gold; they were too small to tell. Shadburn said the coins had been minted in Auraria, from local metal. The gold was returning to its source.

Opening the traveling bag was reassuring but unnecessary. Holtzclaw would have felt by the heft of the bag if the gold had gone missing, and besides, who could have taken it? He was the only passenger aboard the stagecoach. His other supplies, too, were present: pen, ink, linen paper, his notary stamp. If he met his employer’s expectations, Holtzclaw would be gone from Auraria in a few days, and his traveling bag would be much lighter. The worth of land deeds is not measured by their weight.

Even past noon, blue mist filled the Lost Creek Valley. The stagecoach, descending from the Great Hogback Ridge, forded a stream that broke from the mountainside and cascaded down a moss-painted cliff. The air was heavy with water, and Holtzclaw, knowing no better, tried not to breathe it in. One could not drown in such an atmosphere, he knew, but it could imbue his unacclimated lungs with sickly airs.

Beside the road, a boy was fishing from a fallen log that jutted over the edge of a rocky knob, giving him a clear cast into the emptiness of the valley. His feet swung in space above the fog. Holtzclaw saw that the boy’s fishing pole was only a branch, still covered in bark. The poor should take better care of their possessions, thought Holtzclaw, since they have so few to look after. He leaned out of the window and called for the driver to stop.

“There’s no water below you, young sir,” Holtzclaw said to the boy.

“Doesn’t matter,” said the boy. He snapped his fishing pole back, and a fish flew up from the mist. Holtzclaw recoiled from the sudden appearance of this missile, but the boy caught it with practiced hands. Neither the crudeness of the fishing equipment or the lack of a body of water had hampered the boy’s ability to land a catch. “I’ll sell it to you,” the boy said, pushing the head of the fish through the open window. “They’re good eating.”

The fish’s ruby body and barb-like fins were dusted with a golden residue. Its eyes were like two gold coins. Holtzclaw doubted that it made for good eating; the boy must be judging by rural standards.

“First, you must tell me how you caught it,” said Holtzclaw.

“You don’t have boys that go fishing where you come from?”

“They fish in sensible places. Creeks and ponds. Wet places, not empty ones.”

“Mist is wet, isn’t it?”

“But it is an entirely different state of matter. Water sustains life, but mist is a vapory nothing.”

“Not if it’s thick enough,” said the boy, “I just throw out my line, and the fish latch on.”

This spilled the secret of the boy’s scheme. He must have hooked some local trout to the end of his line, then spooled it out so that the fish disappeared into the fog. When a stagecoach like Holtzclaw’s came down the Great Hogback Ridge Road, he hauled up his supposed catch and sold it to naive travelers, who thought they were buying into some wondrous phenomenon.

“Here,” said Holtzclaw, pleased that he had not be hoodwinked. “I’m going to give you a few coins—not for the fish, but for the effort. I think you’d be well served to operate more honestly. Set up a little booth in the square. It’s hard work, but you’ll find it more rewarding than these transparent tricks.”

“It’s no trick, sir,” said the boy. “Usually, it’s catfish when I’m fishing the fog. Never pulled up one of these red ones before. If you don’t want it, I’ll throw it back.” The boy grasped the fish by the tail and flung it sidearm. It whirled into the mist below.

“For lies, I’ll give you nothing.” Holtzclaw hollered to the driver and the stagecoach rolled on.

The mist lifted as the stagecoach continued downwards, and the view from the ridgeline became clearer. Balds and breaks in the trees afforded glimpses of the Lost Creek Valley, rolled out just like on Holtzclaw’s map. The Lost Creek entered at the head of the valley for a meandering run before exiting through a gorge, which was white with the foam of waterfalls. The town of Auraria—thirty houses and a squat commercial square—clung to the river. Scars marred the valley walls: trees stripped away for pasture, ridges cultivated into narrow rows of crops, and smears of mud and rocks left behind after mining for iron or coal or gold.

A chickadee and a titmouse pepped from overhead; they were answered by a terrible warbling.

“Turkeys,” said the driver of the stagecoach, breaking his silence, “or a singing tree that’s out of tune. No, turkeys, I think.”

The driver had introduced himself as X.T.—a name simple enough for even an illiterate to draw. He pointed to brown shapes that waddled through the underbrush. “Folk drive them into town to sell, but some of the birds get lost and go up in the hollows.  Now if it were a singing tree, that would be a real sight.  It belts out old mountain tunes when it’s had too much sweet water to drink.”

Holtzclaw took out his notebook to record the details of this pastime. Evidently, the locals, after some stout local brew, climbed the boughs of a tree to sing ballads and folk lyrics—poorly enough to be mistaken for turkeys. Perhaps Holtzclaw could employ it as a distraction.

The jostling of the stagecoach troubled his handwriting. A wheel bounced off a stone, and his head was thrown against the window glass. “Is it much farther into Auraria?” he asked, rubbing his injury.

“Still a fair piece, Mr. Holtzclaw,” said X.T.

The stagecoach had left its station in Dahlonega at dawn that day. Holtzclaw had planned for the journey to take no more than five hours. Through the settled acres around the county seat, the stagecoach had kept an excellent pace. A private turnpike had provided the best stretch; Holtzclaw would have gladly kept paying three cents a mile toll had the road stayed so comfortable. But the smooth traveling was too short. On the Lost Creek side of the Great Hogback Ridge, the road was only a cart path. Farmers’ wagons, turkey drivers’ nibbling herds, and rainwater flowing from the heights both made and unmade the road by turns. It was clear now that the primitive suspension of the stagecoach was inadequate for the mountain road and for Holtzclaw’s sensibilities.

“I’ll walk from here,” he said to X.T.

“Still a fair piece, Mr. Holtzclaw.”

“I will be in a fair number of pieces if I keep on with you.”

X.T. shrugged. “If you still want the old Smith place, then, it’s over the Saddlehorn two miles, then you’ll take the Post Trace down into the valley. I’ll haul your boxes to McTavish’s.”

“Is McTavish’s the only inn in Auraria?” Scottish hospitality and cuisine had not favorably impressed Holtzclaw in the past.

“Well, there’s the Old Rock Falls Inn and the Grayson House. We don’t like to put up guests at the Old Rock Falls. The whispering walls make strangers nervous. The Grayson House has a rough crowd. They bring out the chuck-luck wheel every night, and sometimes folks lose a finger.”

Were his deadlines less pressing, Holtzclaw would have questioned X.T. further about these superstitions. But it was already later in the afternoon than he would have liked, and he had important visits to make. He issued his orders to the driver. “Take my things to the McTavish’s then. I’ll select other lodgings if they impress me better when I arrive.”

He climbed down from the stagecoach and stretched his journey-stiffened limbs. He was clean-shaven but with admirable sideburns—a young man’s fashion, and Holtzclaw could still, with some truthfulness, call himself a young man. Only a little hair had vanished from his head. He removed a bit of fluff from his bowler; it was black, matching his wool suit. Beneath his double-breasted coat, which was studded with monogrammed gold buttons, was a crisp silk shirt. In his breast pocket, he displayed a folded handkerchief.

“You’ll get your fancy getup all muddy,” said X.T.

“I assume you have laundry tubs and soap, somewhere in your town?”

“Sure do. We even got a shop where you can buy yourself the right kind of clothes.”

X.T. cracked his whip; an explosion split the air. The horse set off, much more quickly than before. His hoofs landed with confidence, avoiding the ruts and pits, and the wagon bounded over the terrain. Holtzclaw watched his remaining possessions disappear down the road. He hoped that when they arrived in Auraria, they would still be whole.

Written by timwestover

September 18th, 2011 at 6:28 pm

Posted in

Auraria: A Novel

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“Weaves tall tales and legends, Carrollian surrealism, and a fascinating cast of characters into a genuinely inventive novel that reads like steampunk via Mark Twain. Fact and fancy are intertwined cleverly and seamlessly in a top-notch, thoroughly American fantasy.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Buy a copy:

Or download it for free.

“Holtzclaw hadn’t heard of Auraria until his employer sent him to destroy it…”

Shimmery mystery and spirits, humble monsters, singing trees and vengeful fish in the 19th-century north Georgia mountains

Water spirits, moon maidens, haunted pianos, headless revenants, and an invincible terrapin that lives under the mountains. None of these distract James Holtzclaw from his employer’s mission: to turn the fading gold-rush town of Auraria, GA, into a first-class resort and drown its fortunes below a man-made lake. But when Auraria’s peculiar people and problematic ghosts collide with his own rival ambitions, Holtzclaw must decide what he will save and what will be washed away.

Taking its inspiration from a real Georgia ghost town, Auraria is steeped in the folklore of the Southern Appalachians, where the tensions of natural, supernatural and artificial are still alive.

“I loved Auraria, by Tim Westover, who based much of his mythos on southern Appalachian folklore. This story romps across those rugged mountains and splashes gleefully into springs flecked with gold. Westover presents us with a delightfully imaginative world, where trees sing and fish swim in the mist. His fluid, humorous style draws us right into that magical place. Highly recommended.”
Jo Ann Butler, Historical Novel Society

“When we decided to allow independent books in the Battle of the Books, it was with the hope that perhaps somewhere along the line we would find a hidden gem about which we could help spread the word. Auraria is it. Tim Westover writes at a professional level, and his quirky tale about a strange mining town where magic hides in plain sight is wonderfully fresh and original.”
Aaron Hughes, Fantastic Reviews

Auraria is such an appealing story because it crosses so many different genres: historical fiction (yes, the town of Auraria, GA, really did exist), fantasy, ghost story, and mystery. Southern folklore comes to life in Westover’s hands as he intertwines fact with fantasy and superstition. But perhaps Westover’s greatest achievement is proving book covers and publishers mean very little really; it’s all about the story. The stuff in between the covers is what really matters.”
Jaime Boler

“‘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 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.”
Deep South Magazine

Auraria is like nothing I’ve ever read before except maybe Through the Looking-Glass. Envision Lewis Carroll on a romp through the mountains of Georgia, discovering a land of shimmery mystery and spirits, humble monsters, quirky characters, singing trees and vengeful fish. This whole world has sprung from Tim Westover’s brain yet remains firmly and lovingly the real thing, the actual Georgia landscape echoing with folk traditions of the southern Appalachians. The best part is that Tim Westover can really write. I’d give an Aurarian pot of gold to do what he’s done with language in the service of imagination.”
Josephine Humphreys, Hemingway/PEN Award Winner, author of Dreams of Sleep and Rich in Love

“Mr. Westover brings my beloved Georgia to life, complete with spells, haints, and moon maidens. Not since Wendell Berry has an author woven such a beautifully intricate southern community.”
Ann Hite, author of Ghost On Black Mountain

“The legends, myths and history of the North Georgia mountains (along with some very inventive additions) are woven into a wonderfully entertaining story.”
Victoria Logue, author of Touring the Back Roads of North and South Georgia

Buy Now at

Amazon (paperback)

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Barnes & Noble


…or your favorite local bookstore.

Members of the trade can order directly from Ingram at standard discounts.

Written by timwestover

September 18th, 2011 at 6:23 pm

Posted in