C Pam Zhang takes a new look at the American gold rush and the myths of the West in her debut How Much of These Hills is Gold. The book starts towards the tail end of the gold rush, but moves back and forward in time to cover a period from 1842 through to 18??. And at the centre of the tale is a Chinese family (although China is never referred to by name), and in particular two daughters who grow up in a milieu that is dependent on the labour of their parents but does not create a place for them.
When the book opens Lucy is twelve and her sister Sam is eleven. Their mother has been gone for three years and their violent, often drunk and gambling addicted father has just died. The two flee from the small coal mining town in which they were living, stealing a horse and heading out west, taking their father’s remains with them. This is their first odyssey across the empty, ravaged land, full of ghosts and remnants of life before the coming of the ranchers and miners. The story then drops back into their tragic history and the even more tragic history of their parents before catching up with the pair five years later when their paths have diverged and their fortunes changed.
How Much of These Hills is Gold provides a view of the mythology of the American west from an outsiders point of view. Neither Lucy, who tries desperately to fit in with “civil” society (usually to her own detriment), nor Sam, who takes on a male persona and takes to the cowboy life, ever truly fit in. They yearn for acceptance and sometimes get close only to find that they were actually being used by those who they thought were friends, that the doors they thought they were walking through were slammed in their faces, and that they only have each other to rely on. And readers will keep rooting for the two even as the weight of history and culture bears inexorably down on them.
How Much of these Hills is Gold is a personal tale of the two girls and their family. But through them, Zhang tells the much larger story of the bringing of Chinese labour to the US to build the railroads, and dig in the mines, their exploitation and their yearning for home. And more broadly, Zhang opens up a conversation with deeply rooted views of American history and challenging to views of race, gender and class. All of which makes this a fascinating and challenging debut.