Article Content Warnings: N/A
Book Content Warnings: Death, Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault
“This land is not your land.”—C Pam Zhang, “How Much of These Hills Is Gold”
“This land is not your land” is C Pam Zhang’s succinct preface to her debut novel, How Much of These Hills Is Gold. The quote suggests a warning to the book’s central characters, an Asian American family living in California during the Gold Rush. They will never be able to feel at home in America, because it is a country that does not want them. Readers are introduced to preteen Lucy, her younger sibling Sam, and their parents Ba and Ma.
The novel opens on the newly orphaned Lucy and Sam facing their father’s death. It is bittersweet, as he was both abusive to Lucy and deeply loving to Sam. This dichotomy shapes the siblings’ differing desires and values and eventually comes to a head when they abandon one another. Lucy seeks out a quiet, domestic life in the city and Sam leaves for wild adventures among other cast-off folks.
The book also dredges up Lucy’s memories of life with her family, and later recounts Ma and Ba’s histories as narrated by Ba’s ghost. When a white man mistakenly believed that Ba spoke Chinese and hired him to oversee a boatload of Chinese indentured servants, he met Ma and instantly reserved his heart for her. The richness of imagery with which Zhang conjures the lives of her characters evokes every heartache in the reader’s own chest, every thirst in the reader’s own throat. As Zhang fosters intimacy between her reader and her own coloring of America’s Wild West, the reader can feel the grime of gunpowder and the dust from the mines and drought between their fingers and the pages.
How Much of These Hills Is Gold is a novel that looks readers in the eye, never flinching from its own intensity. Readers see this in Sam and Lucy’s relationship, the cruelties and whims of young teenagers gilded in shared childhood memories and in-jokes. Female characters are self-aware of both the power and vulnerability that their femininity provides them; the novel does not attempt to reduce the dimensions of womanhood. Not only does the book explore foreignness in America, but Zhang uses ethnically Chinese characters, some who are born in America and some who grew up in China, to highlight beautifully how complicated racial and ethnic identity are in a global world. She does not write as an attempt to capture the immigrant experience, but an iteration of American experiences which vary too widely to be treated as a monolith.
Zhang’s American West, however beautifully evoked, is not without weakness. Ba critiques prospectors—despite being one himself—and the coal mines for their negative effects on the environment. Environmental degradation is a theme throughout the novel, but it comes across as anachronistic, a projection of modern environmental anxiety onto a world with then-boundless land, boundless resources. It isn’t a consistent aspect of Ba’s character so it comes off as more of a soapbox moment for Zhang than anything with repercussions for the plot. Given that the novel already deals with a plethora of major themes (notably family, sacrifice, tradition, sexuality, gender, otherness, and education), Zhang’s mild infusion of environmentalism doesn’t truly add anything valuable, and works only to make the novel feel cluttered. It is almost as if Zhang was writing to become part of the California high school repertoire: How Much of These Hills Is Gold isn’t too long, the diction is simple, and themes seem to almost float on the surface due to their sheer volume.
How can immigrants and their children both remain attached to their culture of origin and find their place in a new culture at the same time? How Much of These Hills Is Gold tells the story of how Lucy, Sam, Ba, and Ma answer this question in their own lives. Zhang’s novel is a glimpse at the past through modern eyes which see every detail.
C Pam Zhang, born in Beijing, is mostly an artifact of the United States. She is the author of How Much of These Hills Is Gold, winner of the Academy of Arts and Letters Rosenthal Award and the Asian/Pacific Award for Literature, nominated for the Booker Prize, a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award and the National Book Critics’ John Leonard Prize, and one of Barack Obama’s favorite books of the year. Zhang’s writing appears in Best American Short Stories, The Cut, McSweeney’s Quarterly, The New Yorker, and The New York Times. She is a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 Honoree.
How Much of These Hills is Gold can be purchased here.