How Much of These Hills Is Gold by C Pam Zhang (Riverhead Books 2020)
Review by Lane Berger
C Pam Zhang’s debut novel, How Much of These Hills Is Gold, follows a Chinese-American family without a name. Ma, Ba (father), Lucy, and Sam are immigrant, migrant, and the children thereof.
Divided into four a-chronological sections, the novel spans America’s Gold Rush Era. In Part One, Ba is dead, “And long gone, Ma.” But for Ba’s body and a stolen horse, Lucy and Sam are destitute when they set out to bury their father properly. While Lucy wills every step to take her away from her past, toward a white lace dress and civilization, Sam carries a disparate inheritance and disparate dreams. Begun as a journey to stay a spirit, the siblings take up the mantle of their parents’ search for self and home.
On the whole, Zhang seems less intent on contributing to the myth of the American West than on moralizing. How Much of These Hills Is Gold insists that there is no one truth; only stories, spoken and heard—stories you belong to and stories you don’t. Crucially, the novel underscores the difference between belonging and possession and condemns those who wield stories against others. The only thing we can rightly put claim to is ourselves. Tigers, silver dollars, ghosts. These stories were never meant to be compared to those used to condone ownership. They are stories to which Lucy and Sam come to belong.
In How Much of These Hills Is Gold, Zhang culls her prose to lean iterations of poetics and scene. Beauty exists where it can be found, intimate and stark. With little more than blocking and dialogue, Zhang deftly captures the tensions of adolescence and of Lucy and Sam’s relationship. There is also justice in Zhang’s sparse writing; in her retelling, we find a reclamation of the power to give and take. It felt right that Zhang would write of a country marred by Manifest Destiny, saving her eloquence for history’s constants: grief, pain, guilt, and despair.
But Zhang’s editorial hand can be overly ambitious. At times I felt pinched, outside the narrative, and hungry. Again and again I read, “Quiet, quiet, Lucy presses potatoes down into the pan. The oil leaps and scalds her hands, but at least the hiss is muted.”
It wasn’t sensory detail I craved. Such glimpses of the quotidian provide much-needed contrast to passages in which every word, every sentence, functions as metaphor, symbolism, or foreshadowing. So much of Lucy’s conviction in the narrative-present is absolute, making some characters’ behavior startling, rather than realistic. By contrast, Part Three is suffused with doubt and absolutely breathes. Zhang makes space for the narrator’s and readers’ humanity to coexist. Although the entire novel is provoking, Part Three is resonant and a pleasure to reread.
Ultimately, How Much of These Hills Is Gold is a poignant reminder of those the West erased and also a reminder that for millions of immigrants, migrants, and their children, the search for self and home continues to this day. Zhang challenges her characters and her readers to conceptualize a want—or a belonging—that comes with no cost to someone or something else.
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