From page one, author Julian Mithra demonstrates a mastery over various literary formats: poems, short stories, newspaper and magazine articles, textbook excerpts, and more. Mithra uses each form a number of times, using and subverting conventions to draw the reader deeper into the fictional town of Goldened, Colorado. The result is a town, complete with people and history, that comes to life with each new page and imagined document, making you feel like you’re unearthing a lost shard of history. Giving voice to voiceless rocks, moles, and other dwellers of the dirt, Unearthingly had me digging deeper and deeper with each imaginary document.
Goldened is a rundown mining town that Mithra reveals to the reader one document at a time, letting the town’s history speak for itself as Cheeky explores her personal archives, a collection of documents she compiles and creates. Cheeky, a young chicanx tomboy, is the central character of the story, unveiling and exploring Goldened’s history while adding her own documents and perspective. Each document, including Cheeky’s additions, highlights Mithra’s carefully crafted history; the painstaking attention to detail paid off for Mithra in spades, creating layer upon layer of meaning surrounding Goldened. When Cheeky’s own perspective is brought in on stories and poems, the town and its surroundings come to life in the reader’s imagination.
While Goldened is central to Unearthingly, it doesn’t seem to be completely fictional. With mention of real locations like Clear Creek and the School of Mining, along with the setting of Colorado, Goldened is clearly a play on the real city of Golden, Colorado. Mithra’s historical knowledge of the setting was prevalent throughout the book’s attention to detail, expertly framed through the fictional documents that Cheeky explores throughout the book. By tying in these real places and history, Mithra creates a fascinating comparison between Goldened and Golden, a comparison that’s even reflected in their names: one stuck in the past and named in the past tense, the other having moved on to the present.
Whether the reader has been to them or not, these places become real as Cheeky encounters them, giving the reader not just a sense of Goldened, but of its place in the world and the world’s serious issues. For instance, in an entry of the imaginary Goldened Gazette, Mithra’s fictional author Mr. Eveline Lovelace writes: “THE QUESTION before us at this crucial juncture is not whether to reclaim our right to labor as free Americans, but whether it is already too late” (63). Lovelace is a recurring character any time the Goldened Gazette is used, serving as Mithra’s voice to explore issues like nationalism and racism. Lovelace and the Goldened Gazette give Mithra a voice to criticize the prevalence of these issues by satirizing them.
While the voice and form of the Goldened Gazette matches what the reader expects, Mithra doesn’t shy away from mixing things up to explore her greater message. While beginning to explore the impact of wealth and gold on colonialism, Mithra uses a form borrowed from the School of Mining, writing a “First Year Required Course” from a student handbook. Among others, Mithra describes a “Metallurgency” course (rather than “metallurgy”) with a course description with phrases like “In this survey of ‘gold fever,’ the professor will tour Australian diamond fields, Klondike ghost towns, and even the mythic Seven Cities of Cibola” (5). Mithra’s twisting of the expected description (and even of the expected course name) to create a fresh commentary on a global, centuries-old issue is a refreshing take, and wouldn’t have been nearly as effective without the close link to the real world. Alongside more expected versions of unexpected forms, like the Gazette, the variety of forms Mithra explores help connect the reader to issues that have stalked us for far too long.
Mithra’s mastery of a wide variety of literary forms allows them to craft an intricate imagined history, taking pieces of reality and finding meaning beneath the surface. The history of Goldened reminds us of an era that we still experience the echoes of; it’s not so hard to picture pieces of Mithra’s imagined archive as modern documents. Mithra’s skill and effort make the literary balancing act of genres an evocative, realistic reflection on how we treat not just other people, not just the life we share the Earth’s surface with, but the planet itself and creatures beneath our feet. Unearthingly is a powerful commentary that bares more layers the deeper you dig.