How Much of These Hills is Gold by C Pam Zhang: ‘What Makes a Home a Home?’

Cover imageC Pam Zhang’s How Much of These Hills is Gold is one of those books about which there’s been a great deal of buzz in my Twitter timeline – not always a good thing, I know. It was the many and varied literary names singing its praises that first snagged my attention – everyone from Emma Donoghue to Garth Greenwell seemed to love it – but what really sold it to me was its unusual premise. Zhang’s debut is set in a reimagined American West in the grips of the Gold Rush, seen through the eyes of two orphans travelling through a land almost mythical in its beauty and promise.

Lucy and Sam are the children of Chinese parents. Born in America, their orphaned father was raised on stories of the West told by those who had lived there long before the arrival of gold-hungry settlers. He was a dreamer, a storyteller and a lover of the glorious landscape ravaged both by coal mining and gold prospecting. Their fiercely ambitious mother was a beauty who arrived from China unable to speak English, mistaking their father for the man in charge rather than the poor boy dragooned into teaching English to the two hundred Chinese hoping to make their fortunes. These two fell in love and begin an itinerant life, their father prospecting and too often gambling away what he found, their mother making a home at each stop. Lucy and Sam take very different paths – Sam accompanying their father to work, dressing as a boy and listening to his stories, Lucy going to school where she shines. First they lose their mother, then their father. Carrying their father with them, they journey through a landscape where buffalo bones lie and tigers are almost but not quite glimpsed until Sam finally accepts a burial ground for him.

Sun sucks them dry. Middle of the dry season, rain by now a distant memory. Their valley is bare dirt, halved by a wriggle of creek

This is such a confident debut, exploring themes of family, home – or the lack of – and otherness through the experience of a Chinese family, three of whom are American but rarely accepted as such. Zhang’s writing is starkly beautiful, describing both the majesty of a landscape steeped in dreams and its despoliation by those intent on wealth. Much of Sam and Lucy’s story is told from Lucy’s perspective, their father’s voice illuminating her understanding of his relationship with her mother and her mother’s part in their story. Both parents share a longing for home but not where or what form that home will take. Both have a dream of America, each very different from the other but neither acceptable to the white men who dismiss them as ‘savages’. Their children’s dreams are equally different but as their father always told them, family comes first and so it proves to be. Worthy of all that starry approbation, Zhang’s novel reworks the tired old Western genre into something thought-provoking, beautiful and original.

Virago Books: London 2020 9780349011462 336 pages Hardback

22 thoughts on “How Much of These Hills is Gold by C Pam Zhang: ‘What Makes a Home a Home?’”

  1. so glad to hear that you enjoyed this! like you, ive been seeing a lot of hype surrounding this book so its nice to see thats its deserved ☺ im hopefully gonna be reading this one soon!

    1. Thank you – I do hope you like it. The writing is quite stunning. Not a cheery read, though, if you’re looking from an escape from our current predicament.

  2. Interesting—I thought it had promise but it didn’t work for me, in large part because the structure never lets Sam and Lucy rest in one place for long enough for us to really know who they are. (I also wasn’t as impressed by the writing, which seemd more often to be blandly overblown than otherwise, though Zhang can turn a phrase nicely when she feels like it.) Still, I think that was more a case of “wrong reader, or wrong time” than “bad book”!

  3. Funny, I haven’t heard of this one before. It sounds interesting, but I might leave it a while as I am in the middle of Lonesome Dove and that might just sate my desire for a Western for a while 🙂

  4. Great review! I was hesitant about this one because of the Western setting— I have this impression that it might detract from the universality of the novel’s insights— but since you mentioned that it explores quite universal themes, I’m more willing to give this a go. 🙂

  5. I never used to think of myself as a lover of the western archetypes, but more often than not, books and films which play with the genre end up to be unexpected favourites (like Thomas King’s Green Grass, Running Water and Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers) that I might need to reconsider my position officially. *giggles*

  6. I’ve seen this novel highlighted several times over the past few weeks. I’m sort of drawn to it because of the context of the Gold Rush …but it would probably have to wait for a long time before I got around to it

  7. Judging from the dates on the other comments, I’m coming quite late to this party, but I enjoyed the review and so wanted to leave a comment. This novel’s been on my radar since it was published because of its unusual premise (I doubt if many realize the debt owed to Chinese immigrants who provided a huge amount of the labor that built the western railroads); it seemed a cross between Wm Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and a sort of transgressive take on the mythology of the American west. I’ve finally gotten a copy, which doesn’t mean I’ll read it anytime soon, but I do hope to get to it in the next 4 or 5 months. In line with all those glowing reviews, I noticed that the NY Times listed this as one of the notable books of 2020.

    1. I’m not sure how but I already knew about that debt owed to Chinese immigrants, no doubt something I’d read. I was a little wary of all the pre-publication hype surrounding this novel but Zhang’s writing is extraordinarily assured given she’s chosen such an unusual premise. Thoroughly deserving of all the praised heaped on it. I do hope you enjoy it when you get to it.

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