BookBrowse Reviews How Much of These Hills Is Gold by C Pam Zhang

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How Much of These Hills Is Gold

A Novel

by C Pam Zhang

How Much of These Hills Is Gold by C Pam Zhang X
How Much of These Hills Is Gold by C Pam Zhang
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2020, 288 pages
    Paperback:
    Apr 2021, 336 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Elisabeth Cook
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Zhang's subversive and imaginative debut follows two orphaned children on a transformative journey through the Old West.

At the beginning of How Much of These Hills Is Gold, 12-year-old Lucy and 11-year-old Sam have been left to fend for themselves in a mining town, presumably in the 19th-century American West, by their abusive father, who has drunk himself to death. After finding their parent's lifeless body, the children attempt to secure a loan of two silver dollars, not to buy food or other necessities, but to cover his eyes in keeping with what they have been taught constitutes a proper burial. No one will lend them the coins, and when the town banker hurls a racial slur in their direction, Sam commits a retaliatory act of violence, after which the siblings take to the surrounding hills with Nellie, a horse stolen from the local schoolteacher, and their father's corpse packed into a trunk.

These opening pages may leave readers with certain assumptions or at least guesses as to the two children's past and current situation. For example, one might believe that they are Chinese immigrants or the offspring of Chinese immigrants, or that they have been orphaned due to a life of poverty and misfortune that drove both their parents to early graves. However, while truths do exist in these statements, as the siblings make their way through a harsh landscape where they struggle to survive, bickering about what route to take and searching for a new home, the narrative around who they are and how they came to be on their own gains layer after complicated layer.

The book is divided into four parts, all of which but the third are told from Lucy's perspective. The first part follows Lucy and Sam on their journey as they mourn their father and argue over their next move—Lucy wants to seek out civilization; Sam, who dreams of being a cowboy and romanticizes the frontier, wants the two of them to continue living on their own. The second part flashes back to the children's earlier family life, and we see Lucy internalize and struggle with her parents' disagreements. Her father—who feels a deep attachment to the Western land—intends to strike it rich as a prospector, but is reduced to working as a coal miner. Meanwhile, her mother yearns to return to her overseas home. The third part is narrated by Lucy's father, who addresses her from beyond the grave and reveals secrets about his and her mother's past. The fourth part meets up with Lucy and Sam years later, when the separate paths they have taken in life re-converge.

Chapters are given titles like "Salt," "Blood," "Plum" and "Wind Wind Wind Wind Wind," blunt names that suggest natural connections between the characters' journey, their past, their bodies and the land around them. In keeping with this, Zhang's prose employs a direct physicality that evokes the immediacy of childhood, as in this passage where the siblings learn from their mother how to pronounce the word for people from her country:

Lucy cups it on her tongue. Sam does the same. It tastes foreign. It tastes right. It tastes the way Ma said the food of home tastes: sour and sweet, bitter and spicy, all at once.

But they're kids. Nine and eight. Uncareful with their toys, their knees, their elbows. They let the name for themselves drop down the cracks in their sleep, with a child's trust that there is always more the next day: more love, more words, more time, more places to go with the shapes of their parents in the wagon seat, the sway and creak of travel lulling them to sleep.

Actual country names and demonyms are absent from the text, an appropriate choice alongside the book's critical examination of the legitimacy of land ownership and ancestry—and the difference between the two. This subject goes hand-in-hand with the characters' reckoning with their heritage; as Lucy and Sam consider whether to voyage to the land their mother loved or to settle among the hills where their father sought his destiny, they struggle with being rootless while still being defined by false preconceptions surrounding their origins.

Asian American experience (and, speaking more broadly, non-Indigenous ethnic minority experience) isn't a singular thing, and even within a single Asian diaspora many different perspectives exist. However, a certain experience that stretches across and beyond Asian American ethnic groups is that of being deprived of the places and traditions of one's ancestors while also being reduced to a racialized stereotype, all while a more complicated history remains hidden—sometimes even to the person who carries it. How Much of These Hills Is Gold effectively portrays this dilemma in a way that I recognize and deeply appreciate as a person of Korean ancestry born in the U.S., and it goes a step further, assembling the disparate fragments of the experience into an unexpected and satisfying whole. That the book is very much literary fiction for adults but features children makes it feel like a restorative gift, a youthful adventure story come years too late for my own youth but with provisions made for my age. I imagine that many Asian American readers will feel similarly, and that other readers will find different connections to the story that may inform how they see themselves in relation to the places they have lived.

The central question of where Lucy and Sam belong and what belongs to them isn't left open and isn't pulled into a trite conclusion, either. Instead, the book follows its characters' wandering and missteps until it becomes clear that they have been carrying the answer around with them the whole time. How Much of These Hills Is Gold is raw, elemental and irreplaceable, something singular and essential. Zhang's novel is a landmark debut that doesn't just fill gaps in the historical fiction genre, but subverts it, calling attention to the very limitations of colonial recorded history.

Reviewed by Elisabeth Cook

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in April 2020, and has been updated for the May 2021 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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