America. In the twilight of the Gold Rush, two siblings cross a landscape with a gun in their hands and the body of their father on their backs…
Ba dies in the night, Ma is already gone. Lucy and Sam, twelve and eleven, are suddenly alone and on the run. With their father’s body on their backs, they roam an unforgiving landscape dotted with giant buffalo bones and tiger paw prints, searching for a place to give him a proper burial.
How Much of These Hills is Gold is a sweeping adventure tale, an unforgettable sibling story and a remarkable novel about a family bound and divided by its memories.
What an outstanding novel this is! I started reading it one evening, and I finished it the next morning – I found it utterly compelling, and I couldn’t wait to find out what would happen to Lucy and Sam.
Set towards the end of the Gold Rush, the novel features siblings Lucy and Sam, children of Chinese immigrants. Theirs is a life of hardship, living hand to mouth in a shed that was originally used for chickens and expected to be grateful for it. They’ve moved around a lot – initially as their father followed any rumour of gold, and later as he sought out mining jobs when it became clear that prospecting wouldn’t provide enough for them to survive upon. Suddenly orphaned by the death of their father, they have no one to rely upon but each other and must seek their own way in the world.
Lucy and Sam are born a year apart but could not be more different. Lucy is smart and eager to learn, perhaps understanding on some level that an education would be a way out of the poverty that she has experienced to date, but also because she simply enjoys learning. She craves stability – understandable given the semi-nomadic life she has experienced to date – and wants comfort and a nice place to live. I found Lucy’s outlook to be generally optimistic – quite something in her circumstances – she seems to believe that she can make something of herself, even when she has so little.
Sam, on the other hand, is a wild thing. A rebel, Sam falls foul of the other pupils at their school and quickly stopped going, preferring to help their father out instead. Sam wants nothing more than to be a cowboy, making a living doing whatever is available, and living off the land when necessary. Brave and bold, Sam is a realist, and I liked the way that their two characters balance each other out. Sam may not have Lucy’s book smarts but is no fool, and while Lucy thinks they will be accepted if they try hard enough, Sam seems to recognise that they will never be truly considered equal to those around them.
How Much of These Hills is Gold highlights the racism of the time, the horrific treatment of immigrants, and the work they were expected do when they arrived in America under the lure of false promises. I couldn’t help but notice the irony of the situation – treated as foreigners by the foreigners who arrived slightly ahead of them and ran roughshod over the indigenous population. As Lucy and Sam come to realise that they will never be truly accepted – even those who seem to like them see them as inferior when push comes to shove – they begin to dream of an alternative way of living, away from America in their mother’s homeland.
I love the slow reveal of details in the novel. As children, Lucy and Sam observe so much that they don’t fully understand, and their observations raise questions for the reader. It begins in xx62 (which I interpreted as 1862) and shows the siblings in the immediate aftermath of their father’s death. The next section moves back three years, revealing more about their parents and their early life, while the third section shows their mother’s arrival in America and how their parents met. The final section picks up where the first section left off, bringing the story to its conclusion only when the reader fully understands their background and the context of their situation.
How Much of These Hills is Gold is a fantastic novel exploring an element of American history that is often glossed over. It highlights the racism that was rampant at the time, and also touches upon ideas of gender and identity alongside its themes of sibling love, rivalry, and loyalty. Beautifully written, How Much of These Hills is Gold is a haunting tale and a superb debut, and a novel that is thoroughly deserving of its Booker Prize longlisting. C Pam Zhang is definitely an author to watch on the basis of this bold and powerful novel.