C Pam Zhang
How Much of These Hills is Gold
Penguin Random House/2020 /320 pp. /16.00
Reviewed by Elizabeth Hall Magill / August 2021
C Pam Zhang’s How Much of These Hills is Gold, a 2020 debut novel recently out in paperback, has received well-deserved recognition: among other honors, it was a New York Times notable book and longlisted for the Booker Prize. This novel, set in the American West of the 1800s, is a Western unlike any you’ve read before. The story belongs not to white cowboys but to brown outlaws; not to powerful men but to Lucy and Sam, American girls of Asian descent who set out in 1862 to bury their just-deceased father, a failed prospector turned miner. Zhang uses language that mirrors the landscape she describes—simultaneously lean and lush—as a gorgeous conduit for a brutal tale about unacknowledged Americans. From the moment we read the epigraph (This land is not your land.) we know that the elusive gold in this story is land seen through the eyes of the dispossessed.
The land’s symbolic weight is evident in the book’s structure. It is divided into four parts that span the years between 1842 and 1867 (though the century is marked by a double X, as in XX42). Each part is divided into chapters with recurring titles (Gold, Plum, Salt, Skull, Wind, Mud, Meat, Water, Blood), words anchored in physical experience for Lucy, the novel’s heroine. The words accrue layers of meaning as we move back and forth through time. When the novel opens in 1862, Lucy (twelve) and Sam (eleven) use salt to preserve their father’s decaying body. Through Lucy’s present and past experiences, we learn that salt is a rare commodity for miners, as is meat. Plums are an indulgent treat, favored by Lucy when they are dried as her mother (who is also gone) preserved them. Skull is their mother’s bones showing through sickness; a lizard skull Sam finds in a cave; and a tiger’s skull (the tiger, which never existed in North America yet is rumored to exist here, is a spiritual touchstone to Lucy’s parents, a hope for belonging, and protection to Sam). Wind is fierce on the plains, capable of conveying the voice of the dead. The word that ties Lucy to her physical world most often, returning frequently as the novel reaches is culmination, is gold.
Gold is, from the outset, associated with the land: “Lucy wakes up to gold all around her. The dry yellow grass of the hills sways jackrabbit-high a few miles outside town. Wind imparts a shimmer like sun off soft metal.” As Lucy and Sam trek through these golden hills in search of a suitable burial place for their Ba, we learn that his dashed dreams were of gold. The family moved often in search of a new prospecting site, Ba agreeing to mine coal for the meager livelihood it could supply while his sights were set on fortune. As their family story unfolds—Ba’s drunken abusiveness and decline into death after the loss of Ma, Sam’s preference to live as a boy and work the mines alongside Ba—gold also becomes associated in Lucy’s mind with Sam, who is brasher and bolder than she.
As a young child, “Sam, skin bronzed, flits through the house like a piece of caught daylight.” Many years later, Sam is an adolescent male living in a female body. Lucy watches for signs of dissolution as Sam drinks liquor but finds that “Sam grows only more dazzling. Sam tugs at the bandana, blazes golden down the long brown column of neck, tells a story about tracking a wily silver fox.” At first confused by Sam’s preferences, Lucy comes to understand her sister’s androgyny as a form of freedom. When, in 1867, the adolescent sisters retrace the path they took to bury their father five years ago, Lucy admires Sam the cowboy and respects the fragility born of trauma beneath Sam’s brash exterior.
Sam’s golden qualities, though associated with personality traits, are physical—they are of the body. Both Lucy and Sam are intensely aware that they inhabit Asian bodies harboring American spirits in a racist American landscape. The sisters learn racism from the time they are very young. Though both girls were born in America and know no other home, they often hear some version of the question “Where are you really from?” Lucy is treated as a specimen by her teacher, a historian who sees Lucy and her mother as notable exceptions to savagery. And throughout their lives a slur against Asians follows them. Once, as Ba questions his meager salary, fifty white miners use the slur as a taunt that expands in Lucy’s consciousness: “Chink! they bay from half a hundred throats. The hills echo with the sound, till the land itself is laughing.”
Always, Zhang brings us back to the land, and to the literal and metaphorical gold of its outcast inhabitants. Before he loses Ma, Ba is full of hope and ambition. He wants gold to purchase a large piece of land where they can roam, far from others. This is the masculine American dream—to have the land necessary to provide for one’s family. Ma has her own dreams associated with land, but for her they are of her homeland across the ocean. She thinks of home in images: “Ma speaks of fruit that bears in the shape of stars. Green rocks harder and rarer than gold. She speaks the unpronounceable name of the mountain where she was born.” Caught between competing parental visions of fulfillment, the sisters create a game with a constant refrain: What makes a home a home?
Ba is not a failure because he is unsuccessful; he knows how to find gold, and Ma knows how to both save and spend it. But the law and its enforcers strip them of whatever gold they find: what’s theirs is not allowed to be theirs. This denial of birthright orphans Lucy in land as well as family: “. . . though these dry yellow hills yielded nothing but pain and sweat and misplaced hope—she knows them. A part of her is buried in them, a part of her lost in them, a part of her found and born in them—so many parts belong to this land.”
Zhang turns the American dream on its head, allowing us to see the hollow promise it becomes for those who are not rich or white. Ma knows this truth long before Ba, and imparts it to Lucy, telling her daughter she wishes her to be “rich in choices.” Lucy’s experiences from twelve to seventeen and beyond are lived in an echo chamber of race and gender, as she learns again and again that choice is restricted for women with golden-brown skin. These experiences magnify as the book progresses via Lucy’s journey home with Sam, which draws on Sam’s past to build tension about the sisters’ future and culminates in an ending that reverberates with unspoken truth.
The story of these two sisters—their losses, loves, adventures, and hopes—marries the sweeping power of American epic with the private intensity of family lore. This is a book that continually brings us back to culturally ignored ideas, images, and people. This American West is one in which Ba befriends Indians, and vaqueros—Mexicans who were the original cowboys—are mentioned often. Zhang weaves a story built on fact and shot through with myth to remind us that people who don’t exist in our national consciousness have shaped, and continue to shape, our nation. As we learn what salt and blood, water and wind, meat and plum and especially gold mean to Sam and Lucy, we see people who, as Sam explains, are never really seen. Zhang’s Western asks American readers to acknowledge our racism, rethink our recorded history, and redefine our relationship to our land and its brown people.
Elizabeth Hall Magill is pursuing an MFA in Fiction from Spalding University, where she has been awarded the Emerging Writer Scholarship, the J. Terry Price Scholarship, and the Mann-Driskell Scholarship. Her fiction has appeared in Limestone.