Amidst a pandemic, many of the most wealthy and powerful Americans continue to value the vitality of the economy over the vitality of humanity. We know this is nothing new. America’s legacy is founded on a willingness to fatally exploit and ignore marginalized communities for profit, all the while erasing the evidence of heinous wrongdoing from history. These revisionist views take hold and are tough to shake, even decades or centuries later. In writing about the past, many contemporary novelists are fighting to reclaim and rewrite narratives that were part of this longstanding historical erasure.
Centered on the 1849 gold rush, C Pam Zhang’s debut novel, How Much of These Hills Is Gold, blends fabulism and folklore set against a violent background of genocide, mass land theft, murderous racism, and manifest destiny-driven greed. In doing so, Zhang brings to life the vast, often-omitted cruelties of westward expansion.
How Much of These Hills Is Gold begins with two sisters, Lucy and Sam, eleven and ten years old, tasked with burying their dead alcoholic father, a failed prospector who lived in gold country long before it was overtaken by merciless forty-niners. Poor and alone, the duo flees town after Sam, who has dreams of being an outlaw, fires a pistol at a racist banker. The sisters eventually land in the city of Sweetwater, closing the novel’s first act. From there, Zhang deftly builds the family legend that led to these ill fortunes before eventually circling back to Lucy and Sam in early adulthood.
In the early pages, Zhang intentionally avoids Sam’s pronouns. Sam dreams of being the son their father never had and even at a young age recognizes the masculine expectations of her imagined frontier lifestyle. They flee town with little food except “a wizened carrot,” which Lucy offers to her younger sibling. Sam gives half to their horse and saves the rest. After Sam gets sick when Lucy forgets to boil their water, Lucy must nurse her back to health. In first revealing Sam’s gender, Zhang writes, “Lucy draws half a carrot from the indent between her little sister’s legs: a poor replacement for the parts Ba wanted Sam to have.” Lucy and Sam’s family also experiences blatant racism with such regularity that in the beginning Lucy does not even know the word to describe her Chinese heritage. She is only familiar with the sinophobic exclamations she hears from nearby miners. By these intentional omissions, Zhang challenges reader biases. Sam’s traditionally boyish tendencies prove to be inaccurate and societally constructed. Zhang’s choices in language show how white settlers attempt to demean and erase Lucy and Sam’s existence in real time.
Zhang’s lyricism and eye for narrative structure are superb in equal measure. The storytelling is coiled and confident, it excels in its mixed chronology and echoes to the past. Throughout, the prose has a prospector’s aesthetic. The sentences have been sifted through so that only the necessary elements remain, the glimmering bits that sparkle in the sun. Clouds, hills, gold, salt, blood, wind, home, these words are turned over and examined with such care that they increase in value over time.
The syntax too varies as much as gold formations, parceled out in terse flakes and flowing veins, a larger abundance of dazzling nuggets than any landscape could ever be expected to provide. Consider Lucy’s reflections on salt:
“Lucy stands long enough for the clouds to gather, the world to swirl around her. She thinks of the plums Ma pickled in salt, the way they took a form more potent than their origins. She thinks of Ba salting his game. Of salt to scour iron. Of salt in an open wound, a burn that purifies. Salt to clean and salt to save. Salt on a rich man’s table every Sunday, a flavor to mark the passage of the week. Salt shrinking the flesh of fruit and meat both, changing it, buying time.”
The author’s attention to setting is also noteworthy. The landscape is described in broad features so that the West feels expansive and endless, but Zhang writes with a level of specificity that gives the elements a distinct geography. Near the novel’s close, Lucy first sees the Pacific Ocean. Zhang writes:
“If this land is like no land, then the water is like no water. Sam takes Lucy down to the wet edge. On foot they cross the sand. The ocean is gray. Ugly under its lid of fog. Look hard enough and there’s blue, some green, a spark of distant sunlight. Mostly the water is unconcerned with beauty. Mostly it rages and beats the cliffs till they crumble, plunging unwary creatures to their deaths. The water eats at the posts of the docks, bends that wood to its knees. The water does not reflect. It is itself, and it spreads to the horizon.”
It’s not easy to fight our way into history. How Much of These Hills Is Gold is first and foremost a family story, a gorgeous novel that gives its characters room to learn, mourn, fight, and reinvent themselves. But it also reveals the flaws and false revisions in the American mythos, the ways we have never fully overcome the brutalities on which this country was built, and how much was lost, destroyed, and stolen in the pursuit of profit along the way.
How Much of These Hills Is Gold
By C Pam Zhang
Published April 7, 2020
Aram Mrjoian is a writer, editor, instructor, and PhD candidate at Florida State University. He is an editor-at-large at the Chicago Review of Books, the Southern Review of Books, and the Southeast Review, as well as the managing editor at TriQuarterly. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Millions, The Rumpus, Boulevard, Cream City Review, Gulf Coast online, Longreads, Joyland, and many other publications. He earned his MFA in creative writing at Northwestern University. Find his work at arammrjoian.com