After their gold-prospecting father dies, 12-year-old Lucy and 11-year-old Sam are left to fend for themselves in the gold rush days of the American West. The first task of these Chinese American sisters is to bury “Ba,” and tradition dictates they place two silver dollars over his eyes—two coins they don’t have. The girls head to a bank, and all hell breaks loose when a banker casts them out with a hateful epithet.
That’s just the first of many action-packed scenes in C Pam Zhang’s standout debut. Lucy and Sam’s odyssey unfolds in a series of edge-of-your-seat twists and turns, bringing to mind the classic True Grit and Paulette Jiles’ News of the World, two Westerns that also feature fierce young heroines. Yet Zhang turns the genre on its head by writing a historical saga that also serves as a modern immigration novel. Before dying, Ba tells his eldest, “I grew up knowing I belonged to this land, Lucy girl. You and Sam do too, never mind how you look. Don’t you let any man with a history book tell you different.” Ma, however, offers polar-opposite advice. While Ba dreams of having a large, isolated parcel of property, Ma warns, “Gold can’t buy everything. This will never be our land.”
Unfolding in a carefully structured, nonlinear fashion, the novel repeatedly questions what makes a home a home and what makes a family a family. Zhang was born in Beijing and, she writes in her bio, has lived “in thirteen cities across four countries and is still looking for home.”
The book also wonders at the nature of truth and who can be trusted. Because boys earn a higher wage working in the coal mines, Sam begins wearing boys’ clothes and finds that this new identity suits her, thus bringing to the forefront issues of gender, identity and cultural and sexual prejudice.
Zhang’s sparse prose style may initially take some getting used to, but both language and plot remain clearly focused. Daringly original, How Much of These Hills Is Gold is gritty and frequently gruesome, yet at times magical and ethereal, incorporating tiger paw prints and a buffalo sighting, along with a fog-filled view of San Francisco and the wild ocean beyond.
Zhang’s laser-sharp reexamination of America’s myth-laden past is likely to help bring clarity to many issues that continue to challenge us all.