Title/Author: How Much of These Hills is Gold by C. Pam Zhang
Publisher: Riverhead Books
In a nutshell (Publisher):
An electric debut novel set against the twilight of the American gold rush, two siblings are on the run in an unforgiving landscape—trying not just to survive but to find a home.
Ba dies in the night; Ma is already gone. Newly orphaned children of immigrants, Lucy and Sam are suddenly alone in a land that refutes their existence. Fleeing the threats of their western mining town, they set off to bury their father in the only way that will set them free from their past. Along the way, they encounter giant buffalo bones, tiger paw prints, and the specters of a ravaged landscape as well as family secrets, sibling rivalry, and glimpses of a different kind of future.
Both epic and intimate, blending Chinese symbolism and re-imagined history with fiercely original language and storytelling, How Much of These Hills Is Gold is a haunting adventure story, an unforgettable sibling story, and the announcement of a stunning new voice in literature. On a broad level, it explores race in an expanding country and the question of where immigrants are allowed to belong. But page by page, it’s about the memories that bind and divide families, and the yearning for home.
My verdict: A heartbreaking novel about home, family and immigrants set in the American West during a gold rush.Tweet
Set in the American West in the year XX62, most likely during a gold rush; all chapters were titled using elements like blood, gold, salt, and water.
There are four parts in this story. In Part 1, we were told Ba was dead. Lucy and Sam needed two silver coins for his eyes ‘to weigh down the spirit’. At a bank asking for a loan, Sam almost killed a banker. They fled and set out to continue their search for a burial place for Ba, somewhere worthy to be ‘home’.
Part 2: As the book moved on to the second part, lush landscapes gave way to stories and secrets the family had hidden. We learned more about Ma and their lives with their Ma and Ba. Why was family so important to them? Why was Ba always drinking and making up stories about buffaloes and tigers and insisting they were true, even though he “(I) never saw the tiger’s face, but does that make my story less true?” Why was Ba not keen on getting Lucy the education she longed for?
We also learned about the sibling’s experiences growing up as children who live among people who didn’t look like them. They were constantly bullied and called names at school like ‘chinks‘ and ‘savages‘.
Part 3: Ba told his side of the story to Lucy in her dreams. He told her of his dreams of prospecting for gold and living comfortably with his family on a land he owns; their cuurent home was a hencoop. He told her, he, like she and Sam, were born in America too, that he ‘grew up in these hills’, but was still discriminated by the community because of how he looked.
Part 4: Five years after they successfully buried Ba, Lucy and Sam made decisions that changed their lives forever. We followed and watch them grow into young adults.
We traverse with the siblings from barren lands to lands with ‘grass bursts full green in the shade of a grove’, witness the wolf moon, ‘rarest kind’ rises, where everything beneath it illuminated, a sight to behold. Weather heavy rains and dry blistering days; hour of the day only known as wolf’s hour, jackal’s hour, hour of the mole. It wasn’t two months until they found a burial spot, where a tiger’s skull lay, to them a sign from their mother who drew a tiger’s skull on the doors of their home, for protection, while singing, lau hu, lau hu, lai.
Two characters would stay with me for awhile – Ma particularly, not because she was a likable character, but for what she did, and the question of why still lingers. I was a little disappointed when she wasn’t given a chance to give her side of her story. The other, Sam, who was wild, free and steadfast, and a little mysterious too, if I may, a little like Ma – silent, but strong and willful. Sam didn’t let rules dictate her, she dictated them.
Although the novel had other themes like gender and sexual identity, race, history vs truth (do history books tell us everything?), and some Chinese mythology, what stood out to me was the question of ‘home’. “What makes a home a home?”
Lucy and Sam were born in America, but the place never felt like home, nobody treated them like they belong, all because of the way they looked. They will never be treated equally, as Sam wisely noted, “They’ll make anything a crime for the likes of us. Make it law if they have to.”
Ma once told Lucy, “It’s inside you. Where you come from. The sound of the ocean.” While Lucy still fought that idea, Sam believed it strongly, that just like the buffalo, they came across from the ocean. But would moving ‘across the ocean’ to be with people who look more like them, make them feel at home, when they weren’t even born there?
I really enjoyed the first 2/3 of the book, especially when Ba told his side of the story, revealing the other side of him that’s not seen, felt nor known by Lucy. Ba, to me, was given the most love and care in character development. He felt more real and substantial as compared to Lucy. I just couldn’t empathize with Lucy despite her being the narrator. I think her character shone the most in the last part of the novel.
I’m still not too sure about the final part of the book, where we saw Lucy and Sam as young adults. The last part just didn’t feel as strong as the first 2/3 of it. And there were other ‘new’ characters being introduced, like Anna, Charles and Elske, which I didn’t think were integral or added strength to the earlier parts of the story.
The final part just felt like it veered off to a different direction and ‘feel’ to it; like it was a different picture altogether. I love open-endings especially novels of this genre. But in this case, I just didn’t like the direction it took to reach the ending. Also I felt Ma wasn’t given a fair part to her story, only being told from Lucy’s point of view, while Ba got a chance to tell his.
On a side note, the pidgin Mandarin felt a little forced in some places.
That said, I still enjoyed the novel overall. I loved the brushstrokes Zhang painted in her version of the American West. I guess you can say I fell in love with her writing. Check out one of the many passages that I loved and highlighted:
“Is this, then, the wildness Ba sought? This sense that they might disappear into the land—a claiming of their bodies like invisibility, or forgiveness? The hollow in Lucy shrinks as she shrinks, insignificant against the mountains, the gold light filtered green through unbent oaks. Even Sam is gentling in a wind that tastes of life as much as it tastes of dust.”
There are good storytellers, and then there are good writers. To me, Zhang falls in the latter. She had proven herself to be a prolific, talented writer. There’s just something about her writing style that I like. look forward to reading her future works!
Have you read this book? What did you think? If you haven’t, do you intend to? Please share with me your thoughts!
Meanwhile, stay safe & well, wash your hands, and HAPPY READING!
4 Comments Add yours
I just bought this one, Jee, and I appreciate your thoughtful review. I tend to like good storytelling a little more than good writing, so I’m worried! But as I type that, I think I have enjoyed many stories where the writing was strong and others didn’t feel like there was enough of a plot, so maybe I’ll be ok with this one. 😂 I am really looking forward to it and will be mindful of that final part.
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Like you, I prefer a good storytelling too, but sometimes you just can’t resist those lyrical prose, like a beautiful painting! There’s just something about it that’s so captivating 🙂 Looking forward to reading your review, Jennifer! xoxo
Really excellent review Jee 🙂 Sounds like a fascinating yet brutal era for historical fiction setting. That’s annoying when books go in a different direction… and I don’t like new characters being introduced towards the end.
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Thank you so much, NS! I agree with you about new characters. Sometimes I wonder why they do that… Is it because those characters screamed to be in there while the author was writing the book? Hmm…
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