Review: How Much of These Hills Is Gold

Unfortunately, I didn’t manage to catch up on posts or blog hopping before my job got real busy; I’m already in sporadic attendance mode for the rest of fall. I will still be responding to comments and catching up on blog hopping *eventually* and I do have a few posts in the queue, but please excuse me for basically falling off the face of the internet for the next few weeks, and know that as always I’m still very grateful for your likes and comments and look forward to interacting more as soon as I can!

Between work and my killer reading slump, this particular review has been a long time coming, but the book was a pleasure to read so I’ve been hoping to do it justice despite the delay. I picked up C Pam Zhang’s How Much of These Hills is Gold as part of my Booker longlist reading; unfortunately since finishing it, this title has missed a spot on the shortlist, which I think is a shame. If you’ve been curious about this one at all, I highly recommend still picking it up regardless!

In the novel, Lucy recounts her experience as the child of a gold prospector / coal miner in mid-1800s America. It’s a dying era throughout Lucy’s childhood, and her family struggles greatly to find work and survive. Complicating an already difficult career choice, they also face extreme prejudice as an immigrant family- Lucy’s ma was born in China and arrived in America as an adult; Lucy’s ba looks like his wife, but he was adopted in America as a baby and knows nothing of the land across the sea that Ma longs for. The lack of gold and the rough conditions around the mines make life difficult for all of them, but this is only the beginning for Lucy and her younger sibling, Sam, when they suddenly find themselves orphaned and alone.

“Point is, there’s always been gold in these hills. You just had to believe.”

How Much of These Hills is Gold is a poignant tale that takes a period often romanticized (or at least white-washed) in Western lit and reveals its dark corners, without tarnishing in the process the simple dreams of prospectors like Ba, who have a love for the natural land and want to see the prettiness the world has to offer without destroying the earth in the process. From her parents Lucy learns both a respect for the land and an abhorrence for the mining lifestyle. Zhang manages to provide the gleam of gold that one expects from a prospecting trail while also uncovering the poverty and hardship faced by those who move west and west and west again, trying to find any patch of earth that hasn’t already been picked clean and ruined by the growing hand of industry. The family’s status as immigrants also gives the story a fresh angle that will appeal to readers who don’t usually go for Westerns; there’s plenty of social commentary to be found here, a pushback against those who have been able to do whatever they please from positions of unjust power.

“What moves in the heads of these people each time they look at us and size us up, what makes them decide on one day to call us chink and the next day to let us pass, and some days to offer charity? I don’t rightly know, Lucy girl. Never figured it out.”

In addition to providing a very moving story, the book also sports an interesting structure. It is divided into four sections, the years presented unchronologically. But more intriguing is the way Zhang plays with reader expectations, especially when it comes to character. With Lucy as our main narrator, we meet most characters through her eyes, in the thick of things. As things progress, the reader is often surprised by central facts that Zhang has hidden only to reveal later when they have greatest impact. For example, the gender and sexual identity of Lucy’s sibling is presented very cleverly, warning the reader early on not to make hasty assumptions about anyone. And yet, even after learning this lesson once, it is easy to be surprised again and again as Zhang reveals more about Lucy, her family, and her acquaintances. It’s a bold and necessary reminder that people aren’t always as they seem, and that beneath their appearance lies someone’s complex, personal history.

“In Lucy’s fondest dream, the one she doesn’t want to wake from, she braves no dragons and tigers. Finds no gold. She sees wonders from a distance, her face unnoticed in the crowd. When she walks down the long street that leads her home, no one pays her any mind at all.”

My only complaint comes from a single section of the book, where Ba comes to Lucy in a dream to explain his side of things, posthumously (this is not a spoiler, Ba’s death is in the synopsis and occurs very early in the book). Though Ba’s backstory is just as incredible as the rest, it is the only part of the book that we don’t see directly through Lucy’s perspective, and the fact that his voice comes to her in a dream to fill in the blanks is a writing tactic that always feels forced and inorganic to me. It’s possible there is a cultural aspect to this section that is lost on me (there is indeed a focus on burial rights that Ma has impressed upon her children from her own homeland, and Ba’s burial is delayed as they try to fulfill these requirements) and if so I can’t criticize the intent, I can only remark on the way that it read for me, a non own voices reader. Furthermore, this section asks the reader to sympathize with a character who has previously been presented as a hard and unbending man, willing to hurt and manipulate those around him; the sympathy feels unearned, no matter how well Ba’s past matches up with his personality.

Others may also feel frustrated over the vague ending. The book ends mid-sentence as Lucy decides what she wants for her future; I must admit to rereading the last couple of pages a time or two to see whether I could puzzle out the meaning, but it remains nebulous for me. If you have an idea of what direction is meant by the ending please leave your theories in the comments! But I find the longer I sit with it, the less I mind not having this final answer. It means enough for Lucy to want something after the horrors she’s been through, and leaving her desire open-ended feels indicative of the sort of wide open dreaming that drove her family to chase gold and an elusive happiness for so many years, though the one thing that seems certain with the final sentence is that Lucy will not be returning to a life of prospecting.

Despite these two small hiccups, I relished Zhang’s sharp writing, her skill with metaphor and her ability to twist the knife at just the right moment to drive this narrative straight into the reader’s heart. This is a fierce story of sibling love and loyalty, the trials faced by an immigrant family, and a fraught chapter of history for many who’ve previously gone unheard. It’s an impressive work by an impressive new writer, one I’ll certainly want to read more from in the future.

CW: racism, child labor, rape, forced prostitution, children orphaned and/or abandoned, near starvation, mass murder (by fire), infant death, parent death.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. Despite my reading slump, which hit while I was finishing this book last month, I loved the writing and the narrative every time I picked this story up, and my slowness with reading and reviewing it should not be taken as a lack of appreciation for any part of this narrative. It would’ve made a great addition to this year’s Booker shortlist and I think will be one of my most memorable reads of the year.

The Literary Elephant

11 thoughts on “Review: How Much of These Hills Is Gold”

  1. Great review!! I particularly like your take on the ending – although vague, it absolutely is hopeful. I also agree that Zhang brings such a fresh voice and perspective to the typically white-washed Western!! Excited to see what Zhang writes next 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hannah (or Emily, or course!), did you feel that the trauma in this book, which I see listed through content warnings, make it too heavy to read? I was thinking, “Oh, this sounds interesting” but then I got to those content warnings….

      It is good to know that the feelings aren’t quite earned in Ba’s section, too. This is something my husband zeroes in on immediately in any book, largely because he doesn’t want to feel bad and manipulated into those feelings. Double donkey punch!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Too heavy to read, I think, depends on the reader; I quite like heavy-hitting stories and so it was a good fit for me, but it’s definitely a sad tale. I think the fact that the narration mainly follows the children, who remain hopeful and adventurous for the most part, makes it easier to sit through the many misfortunes that befall them. Prospecting is a hard life, but it’s a life for big dreamers, which helps balance the distressing content. Of all the warnings I listed, I think the rape and forced prostitution are the most difficult to bear, because the characters are much less optimistic at that point, and that is the low point of the novel, the climactic moment. That is heavy to read even if you can make it fine through the rest, and if that doesn’t sound like what you’re looking for right now I would probably suggest steering clear for that reason.

        I’m torn about Ba though! I disliked him early on and am slow to forgive so I did find that section a bit manipulative, though it was the concept of the voice of the dead explaining things in a dream that bothered me more than his characterization. And even though Ba didn’t quite land for me the way the rest did, I think his backstory is supposed to challenge reader assumptions the same way Zhang does successfully with so many of the others- it just didn’t work quite as smoothly in Ba’s case! This was only a mild annoyance for me though, not as much a reason to skip the book as the content warnings might be.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. Thank you! I completely agree, Westerns aren’t a genre I usually go for (they feel a bit ‘if you’ve read one you’ve read them all’ to me) but this one really did feel new and inventive. I’m glad you found the ending hopeful as well! Zhang is definitely an author to watch.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Great review! I just finished this and agree with so much of what you say. Funnily enough, I never thought of it as a Western as I read it though obviously it is. It had such a magic realism feel to me with the tigers and the buffalo and I felt constantly on my toes as to what might happen next. I can understand what you mean about Ba’s section but I actually appreciated the way Zhang presented him without Lucy’s perspective so that we could see him in a new way. It was also a reminder that not everything is what it seems and that people are far more complex than we realize. It made me read the rest of the book quite differently.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! There is certainly a sense of magic throughout this story, very tied to the details of the natural world. I am glad you got on better with Ba’s section- I thought that part was well-intended and a great way of challenging the way we look at his character. It didn’t quite excuse his behavior for me but I definitely agree it goes a long way toward showing how much more nuanced he is than he first appears. Zhang is excellent with characterization. I’m so glad you appreciated this book as well! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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