HOW MUCH OF THESE HILLS IS GOLD
By C Pam Zhang
Chinese-Americans — both native-born and immigrant — played a huge part in the settling of the American West, a fact that has too rarely been the subject of fiction. “How Much of These Hills Is Gold,” a debut novel by C Pam Zhang, is a tough-minded, skillful and powerful corrective to that omission. She dismantles the myth of the American West, or, rather, builds it up by adding faces and stories that have often been missing from the picture.
Zhang tells the story of Ba, Ma and their children, 12-year-old Lucy and her androgynous 11-year-old sibling, Sam. In keeping with the fablelike, slightly fantastical West she has invented, we never learn the family’s surname. Ma emigrated from China, Ba and the children were born in the United States (subtly undercutting the notion that all those of Chinese heritage are immigrants). Ba, like so many others, has joined the gold rush, sure that he will hit it big, but, like most prospectors, he never does. From the first sentence, when Lucy and Sam awake to find their father dead in his bed, the novel is about loss, grief and the importance of ritual: “Ba dies in the night, prompting them to seek two silver dollars.” Ma, we learn a page and a half later, has died some time ago; these kids are on their own.
“It was Ma who laid down the rules for burying the dead,” Zhang writes. Among these rules is placing silver dollars on a dead person’s eyes, to weigh down his spirit, “sending the soul to its final good sleep.” Thus the children’s quest begins. Penniless but determined to carry out the ritual, they resort to crime. After a daring but botched robbery attempt to get silver dollars, they depart from home in search of a suitable burial ground, their father’s body in tow — inside a wooden trunk strapped to the back of a stolen horse. Their father’s rotting corpse helps them in their mission when it falls out of its makeshift coffin and frightens boys who are attacking Lucy and Sam. The terrified boys race off, leaving their rucksack, which contains the coins the siblings need.
As I read, I found myself thinking of two 20th-century American classics: William Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying” and John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath.” Not so much in the rhythm of Zhang’s sentences or her structure but in certain thematic particulars. “As I Lay Dying” hinges on the Bundren family’s long journey to bury their matriarch, as her body decomposes in its coffin. Lucy and Sam do much the same as their father literally falls to pieces, a process that Zhang describes in unforgettable, horror-movie-like detail. And as in Faulkner’s novel, the dead parent takes over the narrative for a chapter: We hear Ba’s tale of meeting Ma and beginning life as a prospector in his own voice, much as we hear from Addie, the Bundren matriarch, just once in “As I Lay Dying.” Zhang’s sweeping descriptions of the West put me in mind of the Steinbeck; she captures well its aridness and wild beauty, as well as what it costs those who traverse the barren land: “Storm days. The sky opens after they leave the mountain man. Rain falls with such force that it explodes to white mist where it hits the earth, raising a boundary, a ragged caul.”
Don’t get me wrong: Zhang’s voice and story are wholly her own. “How Much of These Hills Is Gold” is an arresting, beautiful novel that in no way directly mines another. But by invoking these tropes, she reimagines them for thousands of forgotten Americans of different races and gender orientations; her American West is no longer populated only by the all-white, predominantly male cast of characters who, we’ve been told, created it.
In a piece Zhang published on The Millions in December, reflecting on the year that was about to end, she wrote: “I gave myself license to obsess over my favorite obsession: the impossible paradox of being a good parent in a very bad world. … Though I doubt I want children, I have a perverse desire to marinate in the idea — maybe because children seem to bring with them a sense of anticipatory loss, and so a child might be a tangible thing on which to pin the ache I feel anyway.”
An awareness of this paradox — of children representing both hope and loss — suffuses her novel. As a parent, Ba is far from ideal — he is short-tempered and abusive — but Zhang asks us to consider what in a very bad world might have made him this way and what about him would make his children want to honor him in death despite his flaws.
“How Much of These Hills Is Gold” is an aching book, full of myths of Zhang’s making (including tigers that roam the Western hills) as well as joys, as well as sorrows. It’s violent and surprising and musical. Like Lucy and Sam, the novel wanders down byways and takes detours and chances. By journey’s end, you’re enriched and enlightened by the lives you have witnessed.
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