Written by C Pam Zhang
Published by Riverhead Books
Review by Michael Nellis
America’s history of immigration is fraught with troubles, with racial stereotypes and rampant mistreatment. Often driven to poverty and inadequate living conditions, newcomers to the “land of the free” put their trust in hard work and silent grit to achieve success. And when this didn’t work, as it often did, their families, their children, would be driven to breaking point. All of this and more is explored in C Pam Zhang’s debut novel, How Much of These Hills is Gold.
Zhang’s novel takes the American Old West, a setting that has been built up and regurgitated for decades, and puts it into a tailspin. Given their large influence on American history, immigrant stories in fiction are nothing new. What is new is Zhang’s exploration of family dynamics and her effortlessly taut style that backs it up. Two siblings, Lucy and Sam, live in squalor in a small mining town. Only problem is, their father has just died, leaving them orphans in an environment wary of their Chinese ancestry. The one duty pulling at their minds is to give their father a proper burial—but, of course, obstacles soon arise in their path.
While Lucy and Sam meet many others in their journey, from the first page the novel is a dance between them: Lucy, the quietly courageous bearer of burdens; Sam, the younger of the two and more inclined to putting on a show of bravado. Late in the first chapter Sam is revealed to be Lucy’s sister, in spite of her cowboy attire, mock gunslinging, and short hair to convince anyone the contrary. Their father had wanted a son, and he haunts them long after he is dead, both because they are carrying his body around wherever they go and because he incessantly invades their memories and dreams.
Zhang’s style pulses like bullets from Sam’s gun. Sentence fragments abound and any sentence more than a line in length is studded with commas: “Jim’s eyes snap up. Red eyes, flesh raw at the rims. ‘Off,’ he says. His voice flicks, steel wire. His hands go on writing.” One gets the sense of a rapidly moving eye, one that only soaks in the details that jump and then flits away. For all the style’s brusque swiftness, it causes readers to double back and investigate the significance of the images presented. This is reinforced by the one-word chapter names, which rotate between eight different images, from “wind” to “gold” to “blood.”
As Lucy and Sam continue their adventure they meet some, like mountain men, who are willing to humor them and share a campfire, but the townspeople they encounter gawk, oblivious to their hardships. The novel’s second part delves deep into flashbacks, striking glimpses of the family’s experiences before both parents had died and their “ordinary” lives. Although I picked up the book and stuck with it because of its engaging style, I took away from it an enhanced sense of the sheer struggles that others, especially immigrants, have gone through—and are still going through. Suffice it to say I highly recommend this read.
Michael Nellis is pursuing an English degree at George Fox University in Oregon, and in addition to nonfiction essays has a passion for historical fiction and poetry. He is an aspiring novelist who seeks to embody a unique blend of fantasy and literary fiction. When he’s not writing, he can be found listening to classic rock, playing Minecraft, or practicing his cello skills. His blog on writing (and more) can be found at michaelnellis.com.