How Much of These Hills is Gold by C Pam Zhang


This book caught my eye because it is on the Booker Prize long list.

The story of a family, told by Lucy, begins when she and her androgynous sibling Sam are 11 and 10, after their father dies and the two search for the appropriate place to bury him. This is the Wild West at the time of gold strikes when Ma had come looking for the Golden Mountain she heard about in China. She found Ba, mistaking him for the man in charge when in fact he was a lowly hired man charged with managing the 200 Chinese there to work on the railroad.

Their stories center on efforts to find gold so they can go to the land across the ocean; only Ma was born there, but the desire to be in that place as mythical as the Golden Mountain had been drives them. Their stories are sometimes of their lives together, sometimes on their own. Their stories are of fire, tigers, storms that trap them, hauling around a degrading body.

Here is Lucy at the end of the book, having been asked by the “gold man” to whom she repaid Sam’s debt by selling her body for years, what present she would like:

And wasn’t that the real reason for traveling, a reason bigger than poorness and desperation and greed and fury? Didn’t they know, low in their bones, that as long as they moved, and the land unfurled, that as long as they searched, they would forever be searchers and never quite lost. There is claiming the land, which Ba wanted to do which Sam refused, and then there is being claimed by it, the quiet way, a kind of gift in never knowing how much of these hills might be gold, because maybe if you only went far enough, waited long enough, held enough sadness pooled in your veins, soon you might come upon a path you knew. The shapes of rocks would look like familiar faces, the trees would greet you, buds and birdsong lilting up and because this land had gouged in you an animal’s kind of claiming, senseless to words and laws, dry grass, drying blood, a tiger’s mark in a ruined leg, ticks and torn blisters, wind-coarsened hair, sunburned in patterns to leave skin striped or spotted. Then if you ran, you might hear on the wind a welling up in your own parched mouth something like and unlike an echo coming from before or behind. The sound of a voice you’ve always known calling your name. She opens her mouth. She wants

This is not an easy book; something obliquely referred to might not be clarified until much later or ever. But I admired it, including the willingness to let you be mystified. And of course it adds breadth to that picture we have of the mythical Wild West.

C Pam Zhang, How Much of These Hills is Gold, Riverhead Books, 2020, 272 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available from the public library and Amazon.

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