C Pam Zhang’s debut novel, “How Much of These Hills Is Gold,” is a brilliant re-envisioning of the western. Typical of the genre, the action is set during the Gold Rush days and populated by “ragtag camps of prospectors and Indians, knots of vaqueros and travelers and outlaws, and the mine, and the mine and more mines.”
Rather atypically, it is told from the point of view of the children of a Chinese family who have been trying to strike it rich in the gold mines only to find that the laws are rewritten to exclude them.
When the adventure opens, the two children are on their own. The father has just died, the mother is gone, as well, and Lucy, the elder, is trying to convince her younger sibling, who goes by Sam, to cooperate. Lucy tries to bargain with a banker for two silver coins “on credit” so that they can give their father a proper burial. When things go horribly awry, Lucy and Sam must flee with their family’s lone remaining horse and their father’s body tucked into their mother’s steamer trunk.
As they search for a place to call home, the siblings share their parents’ stories. Ba claimed that the missing herds of buffalo came from over the ocean “just like us” while the mother made maps showing where tigers roamed the golden hills. The stories of wild beasts roaming free contrast with the land already ravaged by the effects of “civilization”: over-mining, greed and development.
Zhang’s language isn’t just gorgeous, it’s revolutionary. She creates her own vernacular, a combination of American folk tales and cowboy poets and Mandarin Chinese. “I’ll tell you the only magic words that matter,” Ba says when explaining how to bargain in their tough mining town. “Ting wo, Lucy girl: on credit.” The phrase “Ting wo” is used throughout the book but never translated. It means, “Listen to me.”
Zhang’s storytelling serves to remind the reader that much of U.S. history is a kind of mythology — from Manifest Destiny to the act of developing the Western frontier:
“And so Lucy fears the unwritten history. Easier to dismiss all Ba’s tales as tall ones — because believe, and where does it end? If she believes that tigers live, then does she believe that Indians are hunted and dying? If she believes in fish the size of men, does she believe in men who string up others like linefuls of catch? Easier to avoid that history, unwritten as it is except in the sloughing of dry grass.”
At turns beautiful and brutal, Zhang’s debut is a stunner. Zhang was born in Beijing but is “mostly an artifact of the United States,” according to her bio. “How Much of These Hills Is Gold” is a visionary addition to American literature.
May-lee Chai is the author most recently of “Useful Phrases for Immigrants: Stories,” which won a 2019 American Book Award.
How Much of These Hills is Gold
By: C Pam Zhang.
Publisher: Riverhead Books, 288 pages, $26.