How Much of These Hills is Gold

C Pam Zhang

How Much of These Hills is Gold
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How Much of These Hills is Gold

C Pam Zhang

During the Gold Rush, two siblings carry the dead body of their father on their backs, looking for a place for a burial.

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.

Once Lucy and Sam have made it out of the wild, they are changed forever. Sam chooses to live in their father’s shadow, while Luck breaks free. Taking their own paths in the American West, in the twilight of the Gold Rush, encountering a cast of menacing characters: a fur trapper in exile, a charismatic brothel owner and a debutante from the upper echelons of society, each either sidesteps or falls victim to the new gods of greed, wealth and opportunism. Eventually, the siblings pull apart and come together for a final reckoning.

How Much of these Hills is Gold
is a sweeping adventure tale, an unforgettable sibling story and a remarkable novel about family, bound and divided by its memories.

Review

‘Generations of authors have molded the mythology of the American West for their own purposes … I take the lesson that what we call history is not granite but sandstone – soft, given form by its carver.’ – C. Pam Zhang

In the closing years of the gold rush, orphaned siblings Lucy and Sam traverse the American West in search of a resting place for their father’s corpse. As children of a Chinese gold prospector, Lucy and Sam settle strangely into the landscape – they operate as both native and foreign in an environment that is both familiar and uncanny. Buffalo bones, tiger paw prints, gold and coal litter their path as they journey towards a place to finally call home.

C. Pam Zhang is interested in a new vision of the American West that reveals as much truth as it changes. Neglected narratives about gender, race, immigration and homecoming are given centrestage in this bold new work. If you’re looking for a book about a white guy riding a horse and shooting his way through dusty mining towns, you’ll be sorely disappointed.

I had a really hard time believing this was a debut novel. Zhang’s writing is nuanced, poetic, dreamy and visceral all at the same time. How many American westerns deal with myth-making; gender, racial and sexual identity; survival; family; adventure; class and the dissolution of the American Dream? How many westerns can do all that with such heart-breaking beauty and intensity? I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Believe me when I say, you’ve never read anything like it.


Tristen Brudy works as a bookseller at Readings Carlton.

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