HOW MUCH OF THESE HILLS IS GOLD
C Pam Zhang juxtaposes nightmare with dream in her novel, How Much of These Hills Is Gold. Her style is that of a dream, rising and falling in bubbling prose that percolates from page to page. The content, however, is something quite different—brutal, harsh, relentless, unforgiving. Reading How Much of These Hills Is Gold is quite an experience. The reader must balance the magical rhetoric and soaring images against horrific events endlessly unfolding. And that’s the point, of course, to view real-world inhumanity through the eyes of a practical idealist who is making her way as best she can.
How Much of These Hills Is Gold features teenaged Lucy and her family—Ma, Ba, and Sam. They’re a prospecting family, living in the nineteenth-century American West and hoping to strike it rich. They move from one potential mother lode to another, slightly out of sync with their timing and slightly out of luck at every turn. What makes their story unique in the annals of such western optimism tempered by defeat is the fact that Lucy and her family are Chinese Americans. Zhang tells their immigrant story in a powerful literary voice I’ve not heard before. This novel is an important one, a real contribution to the broadening spectrum of twenty-first-century western American literature, stretching the genre’s parameters far beyond its long-time cowboys and Indians clichés.
Lucy’s story begins in medias res, when she and Sam find themselves orphaned and penniless. Stealing what they can, they set out on a trek that reminded me of the journey undertaken in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, only worse. Their father’s body accompanies the siblings. With each mile, their burden grows more onerous. Simultaneously, though, Lucy begins seeing the West through telescopic as well as microscopic eyes, really seeing the land in all of its immense glory and potential. She begins to understand gold as metaphoric possibility rather than simply as tangible possession.
Subsequent sections of How Much of These Hills Is Gold move back and forth in time. Back to when the family was whole and happy, back to failed mining claims and hard stints underground, farther back in a dream that recounts her parents’ courtship, forward to an interlude in a town called Sweetwater, forward again to foggy San Francisco. One lengthy section actually tolls a knell of “gold, grass, gold, grass, gold, grass,” dropping first one word and then the next while Lucy imagines her future.
Too often, though, an ugly word darkens Lucy’s life. “Chinks,” the other miners call her family, “chink,” uncouth men and women label this talented young girl. One reason why Zhang’s novel is so powerful lies in its unsubtle subtlety. I’ve not read anything about the Chinese experience in the American West that made such an impact as How Much of These Hills Is Gold does. Prejudice writ large, ugly and poisonous but countered by Lucy’s steadfast endurance. We see things through her eyes, not theirs, and that turns Zhang’s novel into a special re-envisioning of the American West. Even though almost every page is excruciating to read, I thought the literary expression was something special, a book that anyone interested in the flesh-and-blood old West ought to read.
How Much of These Hills Is Gold is a book I would order in an instant if I were still teaching my classes in Western American Literature. I would love to talk with students about it, to mull over the racism, and how Lucy and her family manage to cope. Ma, Ba, Sam, each in his or her own way, and Lucy most of all. I also would love to discuss the balance Zhang is seeking, both in the way her shimmering prose style counters the negativity of the novel’s events and in the way Lucy manages her life. That life is full of surprises, as is this fine factional achievement. – Ann Ronald
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