This vibrant and descriptive novel is set in the western United States largely in the 1860s at the time when the area is being opened up to western settlers due to the discovery of gold deposits. The tale is largely told through the perspective of Lucy, only 12 at the start of the story. She is living with her younger sister Sam (by this time passing as a boy) and her Ba. Ma is a matter of memory as she apparently died in childbirth some years previously. The family, as the story reveals, are Chinese so the rules (and laws) for them are different and unkind. They live in a poor shack; Ba has a job in the local coal mines, but is still also trying (illegally) to find gold deposits. Within presenting a plot “spoiler”, in short, Ba will die and Sam will insist that, following Chinese tradition, his body be taken to the correct place for burial. So the girls set off into the wilds to find it. After the burial there are new choices to be made. Lucy would like to settle in a secure place, Sam wants to move elsewhere but is not sure where. Lucy moves to a small town nearby and sets up life there. But the reappearance of Sam some years later trips off a series of problems and they both have to move on.
The novel is about the Chinese immigrant experience in these harsh times – times exacerbated by race and sexual discrimination which makes vulnerable people even more so. What little that can be acquired or achieved can be wiped out by violence, weather or law changes in an instance – we are shown many instances of this. In flashbacks we are also told of the experiences of both Ba and Ma when they arrived in the States – their false expectation of what life would be like, what compromises they had to make, and their actions for survival. They show the reader how they married, had children and through scarcity grew to be the people their children saw (and were moulded by) in their earlier years, Sam, adhering to his father, will carry a different experience or understanding than Lucy who was closer to her mother and had more of the earlier family life where US realities were melded with Chinese family culture before things became increasingly desperate.
Lucy is shown as having a deep visceral attachment to the land and landscape in which she was born and raised– these form her sense of place as to where she should be. The landscape itself is a key character in this novel – depicted in a strong visual way with a full sense of place – from geology and soil through to plants and beasts, water, weather and scarcity. Zhang has quietly peopled it with characters: hardworking, often short lived, lazy, kind, careless and parasitical all totally believable. She has created a secure sense of time as well, pulling no punches about what went on in the past but casually recognising people’s constraints and weaknesses that led to their choices and actions.
Zhang is a brilliant story teller for all these reasons. The only criticism one might make (being pernickety) is that to unravel the tale of the girls’ parents, when the children were orphaned so young, the achievements and understandings of the girls are perhaps greater than likely – so this aspect requires a suspension of disbelief – although young orphaned children being left vulnerable and open to abuse was real. But do not let that put you off from reading this first rate novel. Emigration to new lands and cultures, having to cope with difference, hostility and harsh finances; watching children grow with different experiences, values and understanding of home are not just “historical” issues. What do family, community, respect and decency really mean? The images and questions of this tale continue to haunt.
How Much of These Hills is Gold by C Pam Zhang
9780349011462 Virago Hardback 9th April 2020