HOW MUCH OF THESE HILLS IS GOLD
By C Pam Zhang
Chinese-Americans — both native-born and immigrant — played a huge part in the settling of the American West, a fact that has too rarely been the subject of fiction. “How Much of These Hills Is Gold,” a debut novel by C Pam Zhang, is a tough-minded, skillful and powerful corrective to that omission. She dismantles the myth of the American West, or, rather, builds it up by adding faces and stories that have often been missing from the picture.
Zhang tells the story of Ba, Ma and their children, 12-year-old Lucy and her androgynous 11-year-old sibling, Sam. In keeping with the fablelike, slightly fantastical West she has invented, we never learn the family’s surname. Ma emigrated from China, Ba and the children were born in the United States (subtly undercutting the notion that all those of Chinese heritage are immigrants). Ba, like so many others, has joined the gold rush, sure that he will hit it big, but, like most prospectors, he never does. From the first sentence, when Lucy and Sam awake to find their father dead in his bed, the novel is about loss, grief and the importance of ritual: “Ba dies in the night, prompting them to seek two silver dollars.” Ma, we learn a page and a half later, has died some time ago; these kids are on their own.
“It was Ma who laid down the rules for burying the dead,” Zhang writes. Among these rules is placing silver dollars on a dead person’s eyes, to weigh down his spirit, “sending the soul to its final good sleep.” Thus the children’s quest begins. Penniless but determined to carry out the ritual, they resort to crime. After a daring but botched robbery attempt to get silver dollars, they depart from home in search of a suitable burial ground, their father’s body in tow — inside a wooden trunk strapped to the back of a stolen horse. Their father’s rotting corpse helps them in their mission when it falls out of its makeshift coffin and frightens boys who are attacking Lucy and Sam. The terrified boys race off, leaving their rucksack, which contains the coins the siblings need.