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How Much of These Hills Is Gold


How Much of These Hills Is Gold

What makes the American West the American West? C Pam Zhang asks this question and many more in this striking tinderbox of a debut, HOW MUCH OF THESE HILLS IS GOLD. What makes a home a home? What makes a woman a woman? What is the value of gold, the value of value, and who gets to assign that value? Zhang refuses easy answers, instead undoing the white constructed myths of the American West and the Gold Rush, centering this narrative on two Chinese siblings as they navigate a landscape of survival, grief and identity.

The novel opens with the death of their father. Their mother is already gone. Lucy and her younger sibling, Sam, try to find the necessary tools for a burial within the unforgiving landscape of sun, sand and mountain. Their mining town isn’t safe for them without their parents, the threats of hunger and hungry men looming large and sharp. Zhang takes us on a journey alight with myth and danger, memory and long-buried history, all limned in a tautly strung web of intersecting lies and hope.

Zhang challenges many narratives of nonbelonging. Lucy and Sam are Chinese, but they were born in America. Sam vehemently balks at gender trappings, finding little affinity for traditional femininity, and both siblings confront the danger of being perceived as a woman. This is a novel that explores the messiness of diaspora, of longing for a home that you’ve never lived in, of understanding that America doesn’t belong to anyone except its indigenous peoples, and the dream of American gold and possibility is written in the blood of native genocide and erasure.

"This is a powerful, masterful innovation of a novel.... Zhang’s incisive, poetic writing haunts the page, fervent and vicious and true."

This is a story of becoming, and it’s a messy one, the beauty and breadth of it as inextricable from unimaginable hunger and threat as the landscape and history of the West itself. Zhang’s prose is bite-sharp and sun-bright, ravenous with lean, thundering adventure and parched, desperate longing.

The novel moves throughout time, through storytelling and memory, back to when Lucy and Sam’s parents were alive, to when they met, to the hazy horizon line of Lucy and Sam’s future. The themes resonate like a melody, like the foundations of a building, or a family, or an empire.

In HOW MUCH OF THESE HILLS IS GOLD, Zhang delivers an unmasking. This is a narrative that takes place within the schema of the American West and the Gold Rush, full of its enchantment and raw adventure, but the very existence of Lucy and Sam’s story reveals the white Wild West for the lie that it was and remains to be. By focusing on Chinese immigrant miners and their children, Zhang elucidates that they were always here, that their narrative is inextricable from that of the Gold Rush and indeed the shaping of American history. Her characters confront violent masculinity and oppressive femininity, also intrinsic to the landscape. As is virulent anti-Asian and anti-immigrant racism, the latter of which Lucy and Sam experience despite being born in America. This specific prejudice is eerily, though not unsurprisingly, prescient and familiar in this current period of spiked, irrational anti-Asian sentiment.

The protagonists and their fluid, defiant storylines are antithetical to the myth of the American West and its central linear heroism of triumphant cishet white masculinity. They evidence the hypocrisy of that narrative. Lucy and Sam are not backdrop. Not sidekick. Not villain. Not margin. They are messy and wanting and brave. They are of this country, and they recognize the lies and hope that brought them here, the theft and brutality that shape its myth. They are protagonists, the pioneers of their own stories in a landscape that tries to take the most valuable of all treasures from them: choice.

The American West does not give easy answers or resolutions, and neither does Zhang. Instead, HOW MUCH OF THESE HILLS IS GOLD asks and asks, wants and wants, seeks and fights, acquiesces and burns with rage. This is a powerful, masterful innovation of a novel. Of the violence of white Western imperialism, how it brutalizes this land and the nonwhite peoples within it and who came to it, how it continues to rewrite that history. Of birthright and burial, of storytelling and body. Of queer, unruly gender and desire, of diaspora and nonbelonging. Zhang’s incisive, poetic writing haunts the page, fervent and vicious and true.

Reviewed by Maya Gittelman on April 10, 2020

How Much of These Hills Is Gold
by C Pam Zhang

  • Publication Date: April 6, 2021
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Riverhead Books
  • ISBN-10: 052553721X
  • ISBN-13: 9780525537212