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How Much of These Hills Is Gold

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An electric debut novel set against the twilight of the American gold rush, two siblings are on the run in an unforgiving landscape--trying not just to survive but to find a home.

Ba dies in the night; Ma is already gone. Newly orphaned children of immigrants, Lucy and Sam are suddenly alone in a land that refutes their existence. Fleeing the threats of their western mining town, they set off to bury their father in the only way that will set them free from their past. Along the way, they encounter giant buffalo bones, tiger paw prints, and the specters of a ravaged landscape as well as family secrets, sibling rivalry, and glimpses of a different kind of future.

Both epic and intimate, blending Chinese symbolism and re-imagined history with fiercely original language and storytelling, How Much of These Hills Is Gold is a haunting adventure story, an unforgettable sibling story, and the announcement of a stunning new voice in literature. On a broad level, it explores race in an expanding country and the question of where immigrants are allowed to belong. But page by page, it's about the memories that bind and divide families, and the yearning for home.

288 pages, Hardcover

First published April 7, 2020

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C Pam Zhang

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 2,964 reviews
Profile Image for Paromjit.
2,500 reviews24.5k followers
July 28, 2020
On the Booker Prize Longlist!

This is an astonishingly stunning, timeless and original piece of epic historical adventure fiction from the truly talented C. Pam Zhang that heartbreakingly resonates in our contemporary world today. She fuses myths and fiction that comprise history and those that write it with the cultural folklore and myths that immigrants and their families bring with them in their conflicts, struggle and search for identity, a sense of belonging and home, amidst their efforts to survive in the face of abuse, exploitation and relentless hostility to their presence. Set in the dying days of the Californian gold rush, the non-linear narrative is structured into four parts, stitching together the past, present and future of the Chinese-American siblings, 12 year old Lucy and 11 year old Sam.

Having already suffered the loss of their mother, Lucy and Sam lose their father, Ba, a coal miner turned gold prospector, becoming orphans in a threatening environment. They leave with the body of their father, seeking the right place to bury him. The siblings are very different, Lucy seeks stability, security, a home, community, anonymity, wanting to learn, to be more than she is. These are never going to options that are open to her, it is constantly made clear her that they will never belong. Strange hypocrisy and ironic that these judgements and thinking comes from those who are themselves recent immigrants with a history of having stolen from and murdered indigenous communities. Lucy becomes aware of the power of writing, of documents and deeds, enabling the practice of legally stealing with impunity, of the legitimacy conferred by writing history, even if so much of it is untrue. Sam may well be a girl in terms of gender, but as far as she is concerned, she identifies as a boy, and she wants a different future than the one Lucy desires.

In a story of family, the history of the ravaged American West, adventure, where family history is posthumously written, fantastical symbolic tigers and buffalo roam free, Lucy and Sam begin together, only to separate, but are destined to come together again. Zhang writes the most exquisite of prose, in this unforgettable, beautifully imagined storytelling, with its magical realism elements, of the complexities of family, of the commonality of the immigrant experience, the conflicts, the place of the culture and traditions of the home they have left, the battle to survive, the need to weave a new sense of identity, issues surrounding gender, race, and the wall of hostility endured in the place that has now become home. This may well be historical fiction but Zhang's novel speaks to us of our world as it is now, of how little has changed, of people driven by their fears and insecurities to blame immigrants for all their woes, ruthlessly exploited by populist politicians, ensuring that the immigrant experience remains a emotionally heartbreaking nightmare. Highly recommended. Many thanks to Little, Brown for an ARC.
Profile Image for Rosa.
213 reviews31 followers
February 25, 2021
I was pretty excited to read How Much Gold Is in These Hills, the story of Chinese Americans during the Gold Rush as written by an emerging Chinese American author - Our Story Our Voices, let the revolution continue! Unfortunately, the novel tries to plant a foot in too many doorways, using language that persistently attempts poetry but often comes across as heavy-handed and verging on emotionally manipulative... the sum of these flaws is that numerous themes are rendered ambiguous and incoherent.

Much of the book's language strives for a dreamy, fable-esque, "everywhere and nowhere" tone, with vague names for places (the mom never actually says she's from China - she's just from the "land over the sea"), whispered names for what the characters would call themselves in their parents' language (literally not printed on the page, so readers aren't privy), some magical realism with tiger imagery and animal bones... yet, we're also meant to view the characters through the particular burdens and injustices Chinese Americans endured throughout that era. Specific events in Chinese American history are referenced throughout the narrative, such as how the 12,000 Chinese laborers who built the western side of the first transcontinental railroad were completely left out of the official photograph commemorating the railroad's completion. The dad's jobs, from prospector to miner, also reflect the types of labor newly arrived Chinese immigrants scrambled to find in those harsh times.

I'm just not sure you can effectively achieve both aims together, the dreamy fable thing + the rooted-in-actual events version of historical storytelling... perhaps you can, but this book isn't a great example of successful execution. Zhang's recurring use of Mandarin provides a key example of these missteps - in order to fully convey the main characters' innate separation from everyone else around them, the characters' dialogue is interspersed with Mandarin throughout the novel, untranslated words whose meaning readers must infer via context. This device turns the tables on the probably-not-Mandarin-fluent reader (you feel immediate identification with the newly-arrived Chinese immigrants, because this is how constantly working through the English language must feel to them); in addition, the Mandarin words and phrases highlight the characters' profound "separate-ness," as well as their familial insularity, and a strength of identity that counterbalances the unending grimness of the protags' relative powerlessness, as the only Chinese immigrants in a land where desperate, morally weak white people run everything. For the family at the center of this story, Mandarin is one of the few things that's truly theirs, and serves as a kind of... identity magic, for lack of a better term - identity magic for all the Chinese Americans who were/are continually sidelined.

Which makes it all the more galling that very few of the men who were left out of the Central Pacific photograph, or miners who had their findings stolen/denied in the early days of the Gold Rush - nearly none of these men would have spoken or even understood Mandarin, since almost all early Chinese immigrants to the United States (and Canada) came from southern China, around Canton/Guangzhou. It's ludicrous to build the characters' core identity around Chinese language to the extent that this story tries to, then proceed to use a historically inaccurate one. Is replacing Cantonese for Mandarin really such a big deal? #1, they're as different from each other as Italian and Spanish; #2, try telling a Cantonese speaker it doesn't matter.

Cantonese people don't even call themselves Chinese - we call ourselves "Tang people," because the Tang Dynasty is when the area that's now southern China joined the rest of China; when the dad whispers the name that their people call themselves to the protagonist, but the actual word is left off-page, it's supposed to be a powerful moment, one in which the protagonist is given a vital piece of herself... but for me, the omission of the actual word (alongside the Mandarin-for-Cantonese switch) reinforced an overall blurring of the people who were actually here (of which I'm a descendant, but that was probably obvious a few paragraphs back), in the name of artistic license.

The very title of this book evokes the *Cantonese* name for this country, since the early Chinese immigrants called America "Gold Mountain." Google the name for "Gold Mountain" in Cantonese, "Gum San" - almost 100% of the results reference early Chinese American/Canadian history. Search the same two words in Mandarin, "Jin Shan" - most of the results are for a buffet in Lawrence, Kansas (3.8 stars). Readers who don't know the difference between Mandarin and Cantonese, or who aren't familiar with early Chinese American history, wouldn't have caught that switcheroo, and could have enjoyed the bilingual music of the narrative unimpeded... but what does that mean about this book, beholden to the experience of the first Cantonese-speaking Americans as it is - who is this book is for?

Which leads to the essence of where this novel falls short - it's being touted as a sort of re-interpretation of the traditional American Old West narrative, which has always been problematic with its cis hetero white male heroes aided by/set against 2D, not-white sidekicks/villains; in all those stories, the hero is a free agent, his own man, because unlike everyone else around him, he's not weighed down by historical baggage, has no one to answer to (certainly not the people who have already lived on this land for centuries before he ever set foot there). This novel, supposedly something brand new and For Us, repeats the old problematic structure more often than it rejects it. Flattening the unique characteristics of the people who were actually here and the identities they carried with them, cherry picking aspects of history to lend gravitas while glossing over others, under the banner of "poetic fable" - we've already read this story, A Lot. Wes Anderson sometimes makes them into movies.

The novel's depiction of not-Chinese POC continues the dead old white guy tropes. All the Native American and mestizo people in the story essentially serve as barometers for how "down for the cause" the main character they happen to share the scene with is - we know this character is messed up because they rebuff all the non-white people, and we know this character is Together because they pick up tricks/wisdom on how to stay alive in the desert from the unnamed not-white people. Only one POC character even gets a name. White villains receive considerably more word space + names and actual dialogue. For the brief scenes when they appear, the non-Chinese POC are uniformly noble and goodhearted, and just want to help (sometimes they have great insight on how to be respectful of the land). How exactly is any of this a re-imagining? And while there hasn't been much scholarship on dynamics between Native Americans and early Chinese immigrants, what little there is shows it definitely was not All Love (various newspapers around that time show Chinese Americans calling Native Americans "savages," and Native Americans thinking of the Chinese immigrants as weak because they did "women's work" [laundry].) It would have been much more interesting and humanizing to explore these complicated dynamics - judging by the Afterword, the author is clearly a fan of Beloved, so it's somewhat surprising that Zhang wouldn't have drawn from Morrison's vision of a deep and textured community (where every character, even minor ones, has nuance via baggage and flaws, and where people display a vast range of human resentments and judgmental opinions, right alongside empathy and solidarity) as a source of inspiration.

Finally, something about the portrayal of the dad felt "off." The mom and dad are together for about ten(?) years and she never realizes that Yup. I've spoken Cantonese (poorly) to my parents most of my life, yet I can't go into an Asian grocery store to ask for one thing before the employee takes pity on me and switches to English, mid-sentence… this novel is interested in exploring how one might look one way on the outside, but not actually match that outward identity on the inside, a quintessential Chinese American condition. But this aspect of the dad's story almost prizes plot contrivance at the expense of emotional weight and accuracy. Because it's not just in the way Chinese Americans speak that makes us clearly not-Chinese; we don't move the same, and we don't look at the world the same way, which comes through in how we carry ourselves. Even if we *wanted* to "pass," we can't. The Chinese mom is supposed to be pretty sharp - it's preposterous that she wouldn't have sized up the situation sometime during the first few days, much less over the course of 10 years of sharing a family life together. Exploring the contrast between the four family members' self-perceptions as different iterations of Chinese American identity would have made for an infinitely richer story. There's not one homogenous Chinese American identity (we come in different flavors), but this novel fails to convey any of this.

If I sound too harsh, it's just that I was genuinely excited by the ambition of this novel's premise. And there were some strong parts - the complicated dynamic between the sisters was often affecting, and Zhang conveys the feeling of being who we are under the white gaze (across different permutations of that gaze, across different white characters) with great intelligence, sensitivity, and complexity. The story really comes alive when the central characters interact with the white characters, which is both an asset (in how well Zhang is able to write those scenes) and a flaw, because how do we shrug off the great white gaze for good when that's where we are most defined? Everything Toni Morrison ever wrote taught us this.

Toni Morrison's Beloved, Beyoncé's 2018 Coachella performance, Issa Rae's Insecure- these very different art forms are linked by how they're brimming with cultural references that I often miss and have to look up later, not being of the culture. One of my favorite parts in looking up, say, "swag surf," is witnessing the vast swell of pride across social media when African Americans see their own culture reflected back to them on such a grand platform, with such artistry and love.... This novel fails to weave any kind of sustained "I see you!" web like that; the cultural references feel largely worked in to buttress the author's insular, amorphous, one-size-fits-all Chinese American fantasy, one which doesn't bridge back out to our actual history, or to affirm Chinese American identity in a way I found particularly meaningful. However, though the book wasn't for me, I can say it's not "forgettable" - I spent lots of time working these ideas out, ideas very close to what I prize most about the goals of reading and writing - I'm thankful to the author for that journey, which gave me temporary-but-precious escape from our current grim reality + my by-this-point-verging-on-feral quarantined brood.
Profile Image for Angela M (On a little break).
1,270 reviews2,217 followers
April 13, 2020
Chasing the dream of gold, hoping it will bring a comfortable life, Chinese immigrants take their two American born children from place to place out west. As the dream fades with no gold to prospect, the father resorts to working in a coal mine where the pay is low and the temptations run high. This is such an impressive debut, with writing that takes the reader to this desolate, dry, dreary west. It’s dark and a little gruesome in places and I wasn’t quite expecting this to be as sad as it was. I do, however, enjoy reading from the perspective of a young child and I connected with Lucy and Sam, these two young siblings, felt for them as they endure hardships, hunger, family dysfunction, racism. It’s beautifully written, and it provides an such an eye opening view of the Chinese immigrant experience in the West and in that time, that I felt immersed in, but knew very little about. The story moves from their present day, perhaps around the 1860’s, to the past where the back story of their parents is depicted, then to a future time 5 years after the beginning. Lucy’s and Sam’s journeys, together and apart reflect on identity, family, “what makes a home a home”, memories. I finished the book feeling that there was so much left unsaid, feeling that the ending was somewhat open ended. Who knows - maybe a sequel, which I’d love because I’d like to find out where Lucy and Sam’s futures take them.

I read this with Diane and Esil and truly appreciated connecting with them. It helped me focus a little more on reading than I have been able to . Thanks, book buddies and friends.

I received an advanced copy of this book from Penguin/Riverhead through Edelweiss.
Profile Image for Michael.
657 reviews969 followers
May 2, 2020
An expansive historical novel bringing to life the start and end of the gold rush, as experienced by a Chinese-American couple and their two children, studious Lucy and tomboyish Sam, who clash as kids and adults over their differences in personality. Lucy and Sam are left orphaned and homeless early in the book; their search for belonging, along with their fraught relationship, lie at the heart of the novel, which nevertheless midway takes a Faulkneresque detour and reveals the backstory of the siblings’ parents, from the perspective of their dead dad. The lopsided structure and uneven prose make for an odd reading experience, but Zhang’s characterization of her leads is promising.
Profile Image for karen.
3,968 reviews170k followers
June 11, 2022

fulfilling book riot's 2020 read harder challenge task #7: Read a historical fiction novel not set in WWII

here is the blurb i wrote about this book for indie next, for those of you who like succinct praise and/or capital letters:

A powerful historical debut about two orphaned siblings coming of age during America's Gold Rush. Born to parents who left China for better prospects (heh), the pair forge their individual identities—one craving adventure, the other stability, as they navigate a land hostile to otherness on their search for a place to call home.

now that that’s out of the way, lemme loosen my belt a little bit. this book is excellent. for me, it’s all about the characters; not only siblings sam and lucy, but also their parents, whose own stories emerge as the novel wends sinuously through the past and present, through lucy and sam’s experiences together and apart, through the mythic and the actual versions of the american dream.

a lot of it reads like a cormac mccarthy-style western, with morally conflicted characters and that perfect blend of incongruously lyrical prose and gritty coarseness. there’s plenty of prettily-described ick in this book, much of it centered around the siblings transporting their father’s deliquescing corpse through the desert to give him a proper burial, what’s left of his body shaped by the trunk as a stew is shaped by its pot. however, there’s a deep emotional undercurrent here; a coming-of-age identity narrative wrapped around a family saga about ambition and the immigrant experience, where adolescent characters struggle to carve their unique adult selves out from under the weight of the past with its layers of secrets and lies and memories, its burdens of sacrifice and love and duty.

sam and lucy are eleven and twelve years old when they become orphans. having already suffered the loss of their mother, the hardships of poverty, and the physical and emotional abuse of their bitter alcoholic father, they are now forced to make their way through a brutal landscape to find a new place to call home. all they have left in the world is each other, but although they begin their journey together, their paths soon diverge and they are left to reinvent themselves alone in a borrowed country where, as their parents discovered before them, race and gender are obstacles to achieving those promised-land dreams, and sometimes you gotta dig your own way in.

this review is coming out badly because my brain doesn’t work anymore, but don’t let my stolid gravy of run-on sentences deter you, the book itself is excellent; raw and lonely and powerful. it’s a beautiful story about a not-so-beautiful family who, like me—hell, like america itself—is deeply flawed but still trying.


review to come, but look! the ARC's pages are GILDED!!

how great is that?

come to my blog!
Profile Image for Peter Boyle.
474 reviews574 followers
May 3, 2020
I'm not going to write a lengthy review of this book. The bottom line is that it just didn't work for me. I normally enjoy stories set in the Wild West but I found the pace of this one much too slow.

On the first page, two Chinese-American kids find their father dead in his bed. They load his body onto the back of the horse, traipse around the countryside and don't bury him until page 50. At which point, his corpse has begun to severely decompose. One of the sisters, Sam, identifies as male, but I felt like I was being hit over the head with this element of the story. It could have done with some subtlety, is all I'm saying.

I see a lot of positive reviews for this book here, and I realise I'm in the minority. But I didn't have the patience for its meandering narrative and couldn't bring myself to care about the characters.
Profile Image for Diane S ☔.
4,686 reviews14k followers
April 15, 2020
4.5 Bleak, dark, gritty and thoroughly unforgettable. A well written debut novel to boot. Characters that are multifaceted, and an atmosphere that draws in the reader. Time out of mind, maybe not to s happy place, but to a place that makes one want to learn more.

The Gold Rush, 1840's or so and despite many prospecting efforts, they are now considered miners. Though because if their heritage, they are paid less and barely subsisting. Lucy is the eldest, Sam the youngest and their story is told in different sections. We also learn the stories of their parents, a terrible one under. The story also relates the plight of the Chinese who came over, lured with false promises, to build the railroad. Bleak fates all.

The author leaves many questions, conclusions to the reader, making this a good pick for a book discussion. I read this with Angela and Esil, and we found much to discuss. I actually went back and re-read the ending to firm up my thoughts. Think I came to an appropriate conclusion, but others may see it differently. A stellar debut novel, nonetheless.

ARC from Edelweiss.
Profile Image for PattyMacDotComma.
1,365 reviews784 followers
April 4, 2020
“She thinks of Ba salting his game. Of salt to scour iron. Of salt in an open wound, a burn that purifies. Salt to clean and salt to save. Salt on a rich man’s table every Sunday, a flavor to mark the passage of the week. Salt shrinking the flesh of fruit and meat both, changing it, buying time.”

Lucy and Sam have gone over a hilltop and seen a salt flat on the other side. They are twelve and eleven, on their own, leaving the mining country where they’ve been raised. They are outcasts from the mining camp near where they lived. The first part of their ‘escape’ is like something out of Cormac McCarthy or Quentin Tarantino. Gross and grisly. I won’t go into that.

I began to seriously question why I was reading this when I got to this part on page 24. They load a trunk “long as a man is tall” onto the back of a horse.

“Sam throws rope over Nellie’s back, ties some slipknots. Sam only grunts, putting a shoulder under the trunk to heave it up. Sam’s brown face goes red, then purple from effort. Lucy lends her shoulder too. The trunk slips into a loop of rope. . .”

Kids can have enough trouble slinging a heavy saddle over a horse, and that's designed to slip into place. A trunk? No way. And Nellie is not a packhorse or mule that might be used to this kind of handling. She is not even their horse who is used to them. Enough about horses.

We learn that they are ‘different’, and we’ve heard bullies call them Chinks. Foreign. Strange. But Ba, their father was actually born ‘here’ and raised by the local native tribe. Ma came from across the water, but it’s a long time into the story before we have some idea of what her background is.

Home sounds like a fairy tale that Ma reads from a secret fourth book, written on the backs of her shut eyelids. Ma speaks of fruit that grows in the shape of stars. Green rocks harder and rarer than gold. She speaks the unpronounceable name of the mountain where she was born.”

The book opens with the family settling into a hut of sorts while Ba works in the coal mines. The gold had run out and coal was what was worth money – for the mine owners, not for the workers. But Ba insists that this is only temporary. They are prospectors, not miners. There’s a hierarchy and a class system everywhere, and they are the lowliest of the low.

In the beginning, Ba and Ma are presented one way, but later, as the children learn the truth of their relationship, it changes the way we interpret what we read before. That's interesting, but it wasn't enough to keep my attention. (Maybe I was still fixated on the trunk.)

I was also becoming annoyed with what I think of as writing-school writing. By that I mean, exercises in putting odd words together to create interesting phrases to attract attention. Some people create wonderful word pictures, but they are apt and enhance the story and move it forward. I really dislike unnecessary metaphors and similes, especially those that are forced and/or don't really make sense. I feel like they were collected and saved up but don't fit.

I believe the author is well regarded and this book is being touted as a prize-winner, so I will leave that to others to decide. These are a few phrases that some people will love but which annoy me.

“What he consumed seemed only to feed his temper, which stuck to his side like a faithful old cur.”

. . .

“Sam’s tapping an angry beat come morning, but Lucy, before they go, feels a need to speak. Silence weighs harder on her, pushes till she gives way.

. . .

“Sam commences to talk as if speech is a coin hoarded for these past three months.”

I chose to read this because I usually enjoy reading about migrants settling into different cultures but never being accepted because they look different. That means they don’t look like northern Europeans. Why that should be the default appearance for acceptable migrants to the United States (and Australia, where I live now) is beyond me. Both countries have many generations of Asians, particularly Chinese, and both are the better for it. But fifth-generation people who ‘look’ Asian are still asked “Where do you come from?” And the answer “San Francisco” or “Sydney” isn’t enough.

I did read the whole book, and I'm sure there will be plenty of fans. I'm just not one of them. Thanks to NetGalley and Virago for the preview copy from which I’ve quoted.
Profile Image for Thomas.
1,400 reviews8,119 followers
December 14, 2020
Almost certain that my rating stems more from a mismatch between me and the novel than any flaw imbedded in the novel itself. How Much of These Hills is Gold uses the framework of historical adventure fiction to follow a Chinese American family during the American gold rush, specifically two siblings who recognize their own power amidst the colonial project that is the United States’ expansion westward. C Pam Zhang incorporates magical realism and a nonlinear timeline to explore how siblings Lucy and Sam come to understand the complexity of their family, their identity as immigrants, and their struggle to survive amidst ongoing hardship related to race and gender oppression. Zhang’s debut novel explores themes of xenophobia, othering, and the challenge and reward of coming to understand your ancestry and thereby yourself.

I will be blunt and say that I did not get this book at all. Zhang’s use of jumpy flashbacks and flashforwards, her staccato and frenetic writing style, and the elements of magical realism made it hard for me to ever connect with the two main characters. Like, I think I got some of the broader themes of the novel though I felt lost for the most part. My sense is that others who enjoy magical realism and Wild West narratives may appreciate this one a lot more than me; I tend to prefer realistic fiction with strong, more straightforwardly-presented characters like those within Frances Cha’s 2020 debut novel If I Had Your Face. Still, I’d recommend How Much of These Hill is Gold to those who are intrigued by its synopsis and I’m here for writers trying more experimental forms of writing.
Profile Image for Esil.
1,118 reviews1,323 followers
April 13, 2020
A high 4 stars!

What a beautifully written and original story! This novel takes place in the mid 19th century at the end of the gold rush in the United States. The story is told primarily from the point of view of Lucy, a young Chinese American girl who's parents hoped to find fortune during the gold rush. At the beginning of the novel, Lucy and her sibling Sam are left alone after both parents have died and they must figure out how to survive. From there, the story goes back and then forward in time, showing us how Lucy and Sam came to be where they are and where they end up. C Pam Zhang writes beautifully. Much is left unsaid, and we are left to understand the story through Lucy's impressions. The story has a very bleak feel and Zhang does not romanticize or sugar coat any of her characters and their actions. But this makes for a story with complex characters and a different perspective on a familiar time in American history. I don't like historical fiction that romanticizes history. This is my kind of historical fiction.

I had the pleasure of reading this one with my readings buddies, Diane and Angela. During these challenging times, connections with friends are especially important.

Thanks also to Edelweiss and the publisher for giving me access to an advance copy.
Profile Image for Gumble's Yard - Golden Reviewer.
1,714 reviews1,145 followers
September 3, 2020
I read this for the second time, 8 months after first reading it. My second reading was following its longlisting for the 2020 Booker Prize (something which as per my original review's ending did not surprise me at all).

My views on a second read were similar to my own, although I did appreciate more the clear environmental message in the book this time around.


Because this land they live in is a land of missing things. A land stripped of its gold, its rivers, its buffalo, its Indians, its tigers, its jackals, its birds and its green and its living. To move through this land and believe Ba’s tales is to see each hill as a burial mound with its own crown of bones. Who could believe that and survive? Who could believe that and keep from looking, as Ba and Sam do, always toward the past?

And so Lucy fears that unwritten history. Easier to dismiss all Ba’s tales as tall ones—because believe, and where does it end? If she believes that tigers live, then does she believe that Indians are hunted and dying? If she believes in fish the size of men, does she believe in men who string up others like linefuls of catch? Easier to avoid that history, unwritten as it is except in the soughing of dry grass, in the marks of lost trails, in the rumors from the mouths of bored men and mean girls, in the cracked patterns of buffalo bone. Easier by far to read the history that Teacher Leigh teaches, those names and dates orderly as bricks, stacked to build a civilization.

Still. Lucy never quite escapes that other. The wild one. It prowls the edges of her vision, an animal just beyond the campfire’s glow. That history speaks not in words but in roar and beat and blood. That history made Lucy as the lake made gold. Made Sam’s wildness, and Ba’s limp, and made the yearning in Ma’s voice when she speaks of the ocean. But to stare down that history makes Lucy dizzy, as if she peers from the wrong end of a spyglass to see Ba and Ma smaller than her, Ba and Ma with bas and mas of their own, across an ocean bigger than the vanished lake.

The genesis of this novel was in a short story (available here and which serves as a great introduction to the two key characters in the novel, its themes and its writing style: https://longreads.com/2017/08/03/and-...) which now forms the opening of the novel.

Two just-orphaned Chinese-descent siblings, 12-year old Lucy (the third party narrator) and her 11-year old sister Sam (who dresses and largely identifies as a boy), head out into post Gold-rush ’62 California wilderness with a horse they stole from Lucy’s old schoolteacher and the body of their gold-prospector-turned-coal-miner-turned-secret-prospector father.

The book is told in four sections: the first in ’62 tells of Lucy and Sam’s escape and Sam’s quest both for a burial place for their father and a hidden wilderness where he believes that giant buffalo and even tigers still roam. The second goes back to ’59 and tells of the events that lead to their escape: their mother having been buried in an unmarked grave by her father after the premature still-birth of their younger brother in a storm, shortly after a small fortune that the family had accumulated (so as to buy a passage back to China) had been taken from them, an event which lead to their father’s descent into despondency, alcoholism and domestic violence.

Both sections are recounted in an evocative and descriptive prose, shot through with description of the still basic Wild American West (each section featuring chapters named Gold, Plum, Salt, Skull, Wind, Mud, Meat, Water or Blood and where each chapter’s title captures a crucial and elemental part of the essence of the life described in it), with Lucy’s memory of the Chinese folklore, snatches of language and Zodiacal 12-hour system (again that system often informing the events of the chapter). The motif a Tiger – precious to their mother – reoccurs frequently.

The third section is a departure – a single-chapter posthumous account by their father of his and their mother’s backstory, an account which as it proceeds appears not so much as having been discovered and read posthumously as written posthumously and unread/undiscovered by Lucy.

The fourth it set 5 years after the first (and returns to the chapter structure of the first two) – the now 17-year old Lucy living in a town, having been befriended by a Gold-mine heiress has her immersion into some form of domesticity thrown up in the air by the return of Sam after five years of gambling, prospecting, possibly stealing and adventure. Sam’s arrival is preceded by a rumoured Tiger hunting on the outskirts of the town – something which is not coincidental. Sam and Lucy then head for the Coast and passage to China as their past threatens to catch up on them.

The American-West described in the tale has some seeming anomalies – not least the Tiger and Buffalo – and possesses something of a mythical nature.

This is very deliberate; the author has said of the realisation that crucially inspired the writing of the book:

Generations of authors have molded the mythology of the American West for their own purposes. I grew up on John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House, Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. Awed, I believed the settings of those books to be gritty, factual, real. As an adult I’ve learned how much of the West in those stories is fiction or exaggeration – including their overwhelming whiteness. I don’t appreciate those books any less. Rather, I take from them the lesson that I, too, have the freedom and audacity to invent the lesson that we call history is not granite but sandstone – soft, given form by its carvers. And hasn’t that always been the way of the American West, epic and beautiful, conflicted and stolen, paradoxical and maddening, which has so captured the imagination that it is difficult to disentangle the myths from reality?

In particular, her own myth-remolding serves as a way to examine two key aspects: the meaning of truth and history and who gets to tell it and the timeless pressures of the immigrant experience – particularly the second or third generational immigrant, caught between two lands. Both are captured in the passage which opens my review.

Lucy over time realises the power of paper – and of who is writing the story. As a child she is temporarily taken under the wing of a school teacher who has travelled from the East Coast on a self-motivated charitable enterprise to teach the miner’s children (and to document his results) and sees Lucy as a special project

The teacher smiles. “He who writes the past writes the future too.’ Do you know who said that?” He bows. “I did. I’m a historian myself, and may require your assistance in my newest monograph.

When later, following Sam retaliating to some racist bullying, they are summarily expelled by him:

“You may go,” the teacher says at last. “All the work we’ve done is useless now.” His voice is bitter. “You understand I’ll be removing you from the history—there’s no value in a half-finished chapter.

Later in the town, the framed deeds to the Gold holdings of her friends father, stand in stark contrast to her father’s undocumented Gold discoveries and their different fates (her father dying in poverty, robbed of what he had, her friend’s father wealthy and powerful from what he has legally taken from others) act as a constant reminder of the power of paper and writing to control legitimacy

In terms of the immigrant experience: Lucy herself is caught by conflicting pressures and yearnings. Her own conservative inclination is towards civilisation, safety, anonymity and she is most intrigued by the tales she hears from her short-term schoolteacher of the American East:

But Lucy liked to hear about the next territory, and the next one, even farther East. Those flat plains where water is abundant and green stretches in every direction. Where towns have shade trees and paved roads, houses of wood and glass. Where instead of wet and dry there are seasons with names like song: autumn, winter, summer, spring. Where stores carry cloth in every color, candy in every shape. Civilization holds the word civil in its heart and so Lucy imagines kids who dress nice and speak nicer, storekeepers who smile, doors held open instead of slammed, and everything—handkerchiefs, floors, words—clean. A place unimaginable in these dry, unchanging hills. A place where two girls might be wholly unremarkable. In Lucy’s fondest dream, the one she doesn’t want to wake from, she braves no dragons and tigers. Finds no gold. She sees wonders from a distance, her face unnoticed in the crowd. When she walks down the long street that leads her home, no one pays her any mind at all.

Repeatedly even in the melting-pot of the West she is made aware of her foreigness and lack of belonging (of course by those who have only just stolen the land from the Indians and the buffalo) – her appearance always marking her out, causing people to question her origins and making it clear:

This land is not your land.

Her thoughts are further confused by the different identities (and even tricks to remember them) that are drummed into her from a young age by her father (keen to make it clear that the land belongs to her and she to it) and her mother (keen to remind her of her family base)

Ba taught this trick when Lucy was three or four. Playing, she’d lost sight of the wagon. The enormous lid of sky pinned her down. The grass’s ceaseless billow. She wasn’t like Sam, bold from birth, always wandering. She cried. When Ba found her hours later, he shook her. Then he told her to look up. Stand long enough under open sky in these parts, and a curious thing happens. At first the clouds meander, aimless. Then they start to turn, swirling toward you at their center. Stand long enough and it isn’t the hills that shrink—it’s you that grows. Like you could step over and reach the distant blue mountains, if you so chose. Like you were a giant and all this your land. You get lost again, you remember you belong to this place as much as anybody, Ba said. Don’t be afeared of it. Ting wo?

Ting le? Ma asked, holding her hands over Lucy’s ears. Silence for that first moment. Then the throb and whoosh of Lucy’s own blood. It’s inside you. Where you come from. The sound of the ocean.

A tension captured in:

There’s no one like us here, Ma said sadly and Ba proudly. We come from across the ocean, she said. We’re the very first, he said. Special, he said.

Overall an entertaining story, one which I can see featuring on prize lists this year.

My thanks to Little Brown for an ARC via NetGalley
Profile Image for Marchpane.
293 reviews2,076 followers
July 28, 2020

How Much of These Hills is Gold takes place in the Old West during the gold rush years but this is not your typical ‘western’. A gentle, sensitive story of a Chinese-American family, it’s about belonging, yearning, and seeking a home in a place where both the land and its inhabitants are hostile.

Our tale begins with the two children, Lucy and Sam, striking out alone to find somewhere to bury their father. Flashing back, we learn more about their parents — Ba who catches gold fever and Ma who just wants her little family to be ‘rich in choices’. Later, the story skips ahead five years to a slightly older Lucy and Sam who, having separated, pursue their independence in very different ways.

It’s a moving story and I’m always inclined to enjoy historical fiction that brings diversity to the fore; unearthing new perspectives in time-worn genres is like panning for gold and I hope the rush continues for a long time. But what l liked most about HMoTHiG was its vivid images — blazing pale yellow hills under a yawning sky, dusty roads and dried up lakes, glowing fire light — chromatic layers adding to the narrative of ‘earth’ (a home) and ‘gold’ (security).

The novel lost some ground for me in the final third (the part where Lucy and Sam are older) as introducing new characters and situations at this late stage diluted some of its earlier power. Zhang’s villains were numerous and a little too one-dimensional overall. But for any book to so completely capture my attention in a very distractible time is no mean feat. 4 stars.
Profile Image for David.
582 reviews122 followers
August 9, 2020
Three sincere and heartfelt cheers for C. Pam Zhang:

Hooray for a debut novel by an Asian author on this year's Booker longlist!

Hooray for the recognition of a young writer of promise!

Hooray for imagination, pride in one's ancestry, and the courage of one's convictions!

Okay, folks, that's it for the celebration. The rest is a lot less enthusiastic. This wasn't a great read for me and I do take it to task. If that isn't your thing, please stop here. And, as always, these are just my opinions.

Let's begin with the writing, which is mannered and calls attention to itself. It is highly poetic, often melodramatic, and too weighty for the relatively simple story it tells, giving the book an earnest YA-type feel. (Applied elsewhere, it could be magnificent.) Structurally it looks like Zhang wrote her narrative and then went back and meticulously removed most of the articles and pronouns (personal as well as possessive) to create an effect that is more manicured than organic. And I found her penchant for incantation - a kind of curated cadence - maximally irritating:

Squint, and can't she see the peak of the last mountain? Squint, and don't the clouds resemble lace? Squint, and can't she see a new white dress, and broad streets, and a house of wood and glass?

They dig a hole. The size of a pistol. They dig. The size of a dead baby. They dig. The size of a dog. They dig. The size of a girl who wants only to lie down and rest. They dig though... They dig and... They dig until...

Remember? How he taught us to prospect. Remember? How his wrists were spotted with oil burns. Remember? His stories. Remember?
... Six. More. Times.

It gets old, though I'm certain Zhang means well. It gets old, despite the top-notch MFA training and the obvious talent. It gets old, but not for everybody. There are those who will adore this. And sometimes I post a review and dig myself a little hole. Remember?

Ma is the only character who is complicated and surprises; the others are narrower in scope and change little from first introduction to last encounter on the page. Their circumstances change dramatically, it's true, but their character arcs don't keep pace. We get Sam, the tomboy imprint of Ba; "Lucy girl", the smart and sensitive shadow of Ma; Ba, the drunk, conniving bully. Zhang tries hard to make Ba more sympathetic through his backstory, but it didn't work for me. Not at all.

Soapbox Moment:

I do not buy the premise that a parent must be cruel and violent towards children so that those children will survive in an unkind, inhospitable world. That's just a weak, tired, crappy rationalization to permit those who are more powerful to be mean-spirited and destructive toward those who are more vulnerable. The world will always teach children the harder truths; that's just a fact of life. What they need from parents and other adults is unconditional love and support in advance of entering the School of Hard Knocks. They need a safe harbor to return to when they encounter those harsh realities. There is zero excuse for child abuse and I am offended, disappointed, frustrated, and more than a little frightened when it is romanticized. Ba's man-splaining from beyond the grave was "wind, wind, wind, wind, wind" indeed.

Message Delivered

Other things I did not buy:

I fully believe that Chinese immigrants and their descendants have been written out of the true history of our nation. That is a terrible cultural crime that still needs to be addressed. I'm grateful for anything that tries to reverse such an injustice, including creative stories like the one here. I just wish I had loved this alternative myth more than I did. Nonetheless, those initial three cheers are well-deserved and I do think Zhang is going places. Here's hoping those future locations are more to my liking.

2.5 stars
Profile Image for Doug.
1,894 reviews643 followers
November 4, 2021
This started out very promising, but the further in I went, the less enchanted I became. Although the story told is fairly interesting, I felt the structure worked against it: it starts out with the death of the parental figures and their children on the lam; then segues back to a long flashback on the courtship of the parents and their early days in Calif; then a single long chapter narrated by the dead father; then a final section taking place 5 years after the main action ... it's a LOT to keep straight, especially trying to fill in various gaps.

Several other things annoyed me - the chief amongst them the frequent inclusion of Chinese words and phrases, which, yes, lend verisimilitude, but fercrissakes provide a glossary or footnotes - I detest having to run to Google Translator every few sentences. The other major thing that bothered me is that there are long lyrical passages that, while lovely prose, add little to the storyline - but when something of import happens (e.g,. the penultimate scene on the dock), things are rushed and necessary information seems needlessly obscured. I never could figure out the past relationship between Lucy and Charles, for example, since it is skittishly passed over quickly.

One of the things that impelled me to read this was the inclusion of a character (Sam/Samantha) who we would now recognize as a FTM transsexual - but s/he is absent for large swathes of the narrative; I think I would have much preferred a story centered on him.

Final verdict - not sorry I read it, but didn't make me clamor for more from this author.

Update: And now it's surprisingly been nominated for the Booker - I doubt it will make the shortlist, but will reserve final judgment till I've read all the rest.
Profile Image for Elle.
584 reviews1,248 followers
August 31, 2020
Now a Booker Longlist nominee!
I’m excited to check back in with this one in a little over two weeks to see if it’s made the shortlist! ☺️

“This land is not your land.”

That’s a hell of a quote to begin a book with, but it underscores the tone of what’s to follow. Plainly, the world is blunt, harsh and unexpected—just like this novel.

When I’m picking historical fiction to read, I usually try to steer clear of the over-saturated time periods or perspectives. I’m pretty much burnt out on anything even approaching the World Wars, especially the second one, for as long as it takes for there to be a third....so hopefully not in my lifetime. Taking place during the American gold rush of the mid 19th century, How Much of These Hills Is Gold is a look back at a period in time when this country was rapidly expanding, and its inhabitants changing along with it.

As the children of immigrants from China, Lucy and Sam, along with their parents, represent a portion of the American experience that history usually prefers to gloss over, if not exclude all together. The two siblings’ lives vary so much from their parents as well as their white neighbors, that they can’t seem to find a sense of belonging. After the deaths of their Ma and Ba they wander the Wild West somewhat aimlessly, not sure what they’re really looking for. This ended up being my favorite part of the book, as we get to unravel a complex sibling relationship through observing how they coped with this shared sudden devastation.

The West is a hard place full of hardened people. One of the themes of the book centers around parents who feel like they have to ‘toughen-up’ their kids. The idea is that by enacting cruelty on their children, they‘re more prepared for a cruel world. This isn’t a concept that’s totally disappeared, especially if you’re trying to raise kids in a country that (still) has rampant racism and discrimination. But for the adults who are responding to misbehaving children, with anger alongside punishment, is that actually their reasoning or just a convenient excuse after the fact? In the novel, I found it difficult to empathize with the alleged grown-up(s) who rationalized their own bad behavior instead of trying to curb it.

The effects of this type of discipline also manifests differently based on the children themselves. I alternated feeling bad for both Lucy and Sam, as they took turns feeling rejected by their family and community. Even the appearance of favoritism can lead to resentment, and it’s heartbreaking to watch it play out between two siblings who are supposed to love one another. Sam and Lucy may share a history, but they have completely different struggles and desires. But they’re still bonded forever because of what they’ve been through together.

This is a pretty short book, and I found myself unexpectedly caught up in it. I’m not usually a western person, but maybe after this I’ll give them a chance. I’ve had True Grit on my TBR forever, so possibly that or something by Cormac McCarthy. Any recommendations appreciated, but I’m not super interested in any ‘Lone Man’ narratives or anything that involves “frontier justice” targeted at Native Americans. Basically anything that Clint Eastwood would star in is gonna be a no from me.

*Thanks to Riverhead Books & Goodreads for an advance copy!
Profile Image for Blaine.
710 reviews569 followers
April 6, 2021
She thinks of the other direction. The hills where she was born, and the sun that bleaches sky and brightens grass. She thinks about when she stood in a dead lake and held what men desired and died for. She thinks that was nothing, really, compared to the way the noonday sun makes the grass blaze. Horizon to horizon a shimmer. Who could truly grasp it, the huge and maddening glint, the ever-shifting mirage, the grass that refused to be owned or pinned but changed with every angle of light: what that land was, and to whom, death or life, good or bad, lucky or unlucky, countless lives birthed and destroyed by its terror and generosity.
As you can see from the quotation above, How Much of These Hills Is Gold is an exceptionally well written novel. The writing is evocative, symbolic, and powerful. As I read it, I kept thinking that the book felt like a non-violent Blood Meridian, an oxymoron perhaps but a compliment nonetheless.

There are many contrasts to be made between the two main characters: Lucy, the older sibling who takes after their mother, and Sam, who preferred their father and inherited his mean streak. There’s a tension between them about whether they would be better off trying to make their way to China to start a new life or to continue trying to build a home in America. And as the book progresses, we get their parents’ backstory, which fleshes out the family drama between the children and their parents.

But I had several issues with the novel. It reads like serious literary fiction, by which I mean that the prose sometimes overwhelms the story or idea being told. While I liked the family saga, the descriptions of How Much of These Hills Is Gold suggest a larger story—an ‘exploration of race’ and “the question of where immigrants are allowed to belong”—that was either unsuccessful or just lost on me. I mean, obviously, in the mid 19th century, there was open discrimination against Chinese immigrants and unfair laws banning their right to own land or gold. But those laws weren’t Lucy and Sam’s main obstacle to happiness or security. Being orphaned before they were teenagers is primarily what made their lives so difficult. Finally, I never settled on what we supposed to understand about Sam. Was Sam truly transgender? Or were we to conclude that Sam was just trying to pass as a young man because of a combination of their father’s disappointments and the ability to earn more and do more in that era as a male? There was too much discussion of Sam’s dressing as a young man for that point to remain unclear.

How Much of These Hills Is Gold is a memorable novel for its sheer quality of writing. But it’s frustrating in many places, and rather unclear on what it was all supposed to mean.
Profile Image for Libby.
568 reviews160 followers
April 27, 2020
C Pam Zhang words paint a breathtaking landscape that reminds me of the grand vistas depicted in the western movies of the 50’s and 60’s. In those movies, the rugged individualistic American hero overcomes obstacles to win out over man and nature. In this story, however, two Chinese siblings, Lucy and Sam, who have become orphans live a different reality. Zhang creates a harsh, raw existence that if it doesn’t kill you, shapes and molds you, sharpening your character, defining who you are and the place you might call home. The setting is the California hills during the Gold Rush. Zhang asks, do you claim the land or does it claim you?

The Chinese culture is very much a part of Lucy and Sam’s life. Ba was born in the US, but Ma came over on a ship with 200 people to work on building the Transcontinental Railroad. Bringing the culture and traditions of her homeland with her, Ma draws the lines for a tiger in the doorway of each new home; a supplication for protection. Zhang invokes a mystical aura around the tiger. Ba has a bad leg as a result of a wound from a tiger. After Ba’s death, the girls embark on a long journey, during which they find a tiger skull which they will use to mark Ba’s grave. Other animals arise from the pages as naturally as they used to roam the territory. Zhang talks about the hour of the jackal, the hour of the snake, the hour of the mole. There will be an encounter with the elusive buffalo.

Zhang writes with honesty and clarity. I would not call her writing lyrical, but it is beautiful and compelling. The sibling relationship between Lucy and Sam is at the center of the novel and Zhang will draw stark contrasts between the two. At first I think Sam, who is enthralled by Ba, will become as angry in life as Ba was. As the novel progresses, a different Sam emerges and I begin to feel a deep sadness about Ba’s life. Zhang reaches into these characters and pulls things to the surface. How Lucy and Sam rise up from their parents, the secrets they keep, and the people they become made for an engaging read. This would be an excellent choice for group reading as there are many levels to explore.
Profile Image for Prerna.
215 reviews1,204 followers
September 13, 2020
Longlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize.

“What makes a home a home?” Lucy says.
Sam faces the mountains and roars.

This book is a study of landscapes with swirling blues, greens, browns, blacks and embers of gold as much as it is a story of two sisters. It's a painting. Actually, it's several paintings. Of tigers, of buffaloes, of slow decadence, of myths and legends, of loneliness and of home. Home, a place so vague, an idea so overwhelming, that Lucy swoons every time she tries to conceptualize it. Is it a place she grew up in? Is it the landscape that evolved around her, choked her and also freed her? Is it her Ba's brown, water-composed eyes that she inherited? Is it her Ma's withdrawn, delicate, selfish grace? Is it her sister Sam's stubborn valor? Or is it simply her own thirst for knowledge, for history and for solitude? Is it all of these things?

Still. Lucy never quite escapes that other. The wild one. It prowls the edges of her vision, an animal just beyond the campfire’s glow. That history speaks not in words but in roar and beat and blood. It made Lucy as the lake made gold. Made Sam’s wildness, and Ba’s limp, and made the yearning in Ma’s voice when she speaks of the ocean. But to stare down that history makes Lucy dizzy, as if she peers from the wrong end of a spyglass to see Ba and Ma smaller than her, Ba and Ma with bas and mas of their own, across an ocean bigger than the vanished lake.

Is she of this land that raised her or does Lucy truly belong to the land across the ocean that keeps beckoning her mother? Is she more of her father's daughter or her mother's? Oh how Lucy tries to escape from the sharp claws of these questions. Caught between an identity she can't grasp, a family she can't understand, a history that eludes her and a hunt for gold that ravages her very life, Lucy is not sure what she desires anymore. She inherited her mother's sense for immaculate details. She grew up amidst rot, she can't help but notice the dirt, she wants to leave it behind and she wants to belong. The land that she grew up in is refused to her, because she does not look anything like the people who seized it. Her facial structure, her hair, her eyes always give her away. She does not understand her sister Sam, who never tried to belong, who was content in her alienation, for whom life is one adventure after another.

What’s the name for this feeling? This being parched and quenched all at once. Lucy’s mouth is dry, her lips cracked. But inside her is a sloshing—water, Ma calls her—a sense that the world Ba speaks of is close. Move quick enough and she might puncture the thin skin of the day. Might feel the ancient lake flood her.

When her Ba, after his death, bestows upon Lucy the family secrets and their misshapen identities, Lucy wants to deny all of it. The confusing, evolving mass of her family history leaves her with a festering wound, she finds herself in a complex state of simultaneous love and hate. So Lucy does the only thing she learnt how to do best in the twelve years of her existence, she runs away, pretends to be someone else, tries to belong.

Lucy hides, lies, befriends, and coaxes until she can no longer escape her inheritance, until their call washes out everything else, until Sam shows up in her life again. Then, finally, she knows what it's all about, her life, all of history: salt and gold. When she finally lets the ghosts of her past touch her, when she lets go of Sam, when she abandons her maddening urge to discern the mirage that she grew up amidst, when she breathes and for the first time it is through sheer relief that only comes with acceptance, she belongs.

This is a beautiful debut, with a story that's very subtle yet piercing. A story, that you'll want to frame snippets of and hang in your living room to bask in its gold glory.

What makes a home a home? The bones, the grass, the sky bleached white at its edges from heat—familiar and yet not, as if, flipping through an old book read once upon a time, they find the pages disordered, the colors melted by sun and years, the story misremembered.
Profile Image for Meike.
1,445 reviews2,179 followers
July 28, 2021
Longlisted for the Booker Prize 2020
A brilliant idea, a strong start, but the final 75 % are more or less a mess: This debut could have been so much better. Zhang tells the story of a Chinese-American family during the gold rush, thus adding a part to the vast territory of Wild West narratives that has yet been missing (by the end of the 1850s, Chinese immigrants made up one-fifth of the population of the four counties that constituted the Southern Mines - you can read more about Chinese immigrants and the gold rush here). The novel opens with the siblings Lucy and Sam finding their father dead in his bed - as their mother has already passed, the kids are now on their own, first trying to provide a proper burial and then trying to survive. Their childhood and the lives of their mother and father are told within the text, painting a wider picture of the time and the destiny of Chinese-Americans.

Zhang clearly made an effort to give different perspectives: The mother has arrived on a ship as a worker, the father, a man with Chinese roots, was already born in the area. Lucy, the main character, and her androgynous sister Sam grow up in a family that struggles to make a life for themselves - indeed, "home" and all its meanings are a central theme in the book. The mother dreams of going back to China, the father claims the title-giving hills as his home - while the many fortune seekers and workers who arrive discrimate against him, the foreign-looking local. As a backdrop, the Native American genocide, the exploitation of nature, and the hunt for buffalos play an important role - the siblings themselves ponder what the term "home" even means in these surroundings.

While at the beginning, the novel has a strong Faulkner-As I Lay Dying-vibe, thus playing with a classic American tale, it later incorporates magical realism: The hills are haunted by tigers, Chinese symbols of luck, but also dangerous creatures. While I found this to be a wonderful idea, the problem with this and, honestly, the whole text is that it is overly descriptive. The second flaw of the book is its messy structure - the flashbacks do tell interesting stories, but instead of communicating with the main narrative thread, the whole thing starts falling apart into multiple texts - and when the narrator suddenly changes, that doesn't help either. Plus, lastly: After the first quest, the burial of the father, the main therad starts meandering as well - of course you might say that this fits the bill of two lonely kids wandering around, but we all know by now that meandering texts drive. me. nuts!

So all in all, a highly interesting topic and an inspired mixture of Wild West mythology with Eastern elements, but it starts to fall a little short as the story progresses. To me, this is no Booker winner.

Now also available in German - you can learn more about Wie viel von diesen Hügeln ist Gold in our new podcast episode.
Profile Image for Hugh.
1,251 reviews49 followers
August 28, 2020
Longlisted for the Booker Prize 2020

A little uneven, but rather impressive and original - I can see this one making the shortlist too. The book follows a Chinese family in California after the goldrush. The story is in four parts.

In the first part we meet Lucy and her sibling Sam as they are forced to leave their house with the body of their dead father (Ba, a gambler and drinker) and a horse. They search for somewhere suitable to bury the man. Sam is also a girl, but dresses as a boy and acts the part (initially because Ba saw this as a way to earn more for her work in the mine).

In the second part we travel back to a time when the mother was still with the family and planning to use found gold to pay for the family's passage back to China. Like much else in the book this dream ends badly, and Ba claims to have buried his dead wife.

The third part is more surreal, as Ba's ghost (or haint) tells his story to Lucy. In this version of the story, he was a foundling who was discovered as a small child and brought up by native Americans. As a young man he is employed as a go-between to communicate with Chinese labourers, and has to learn to communicate without knowing their language. He meets the mother and their plot to escape leads to a tragedy.

The final part continues and resolves Lucy and Sam's stories.

There are a number of places where the story takes implausible turns, but I enjoyed this subversive retelling of American history.
Profile Image for Neale .
284 reviews124 followers
October 10, 2020
Longlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize.

The novel opens with a death. Sam and Lucy’s father, Ba, dies in the night. Their Ma is long gone and now it is just the two of them. Eleven and twelve years of age. The siblings do not even have the two silver dollars needed to cover their father’s eyes as is custom.

Now both their parents are dead, and they are alone in a world that at best dislikes and barely tolerates their kind. The reader is left in the dark as to how these two siblings have got into this situation and their family’s history.

When the teller at the bank refuses to loan them two silver dollars, Sam produces her father’s gun and fires. Luckily, it is a misfire, but their fate is sealed the moment she pulled the trigger. If they were white, they might, just might, be able to explain what had happened, but being Chinese, not a gold-flakes chance in Hell. They must leave as quickly as possible, and their adventure begins.

The narrative is primarily about Sam and Lucy’s struggle to survive but it is also about so much more. Zhang continually draws the attention of the reader to the railway that is being built. It takes on an almost mythical beastly presence destroying the land and its fauna and flora as is slowly grows, stretches, and lengthens across the land. Not only the train but the encroachment of civilization. With the insatiable lust for gold in their eyes, the miners never stop for even a second to consider what they are doing to the environment. Ripping up trees, exploding mountains, killing and displacing wildlife and natives all in the name of greed. There is almost a contemporary feel of warning here. A warning of the environmental damage we still dish out on our poor planet while mining for what we consider valuable and necessary.

The book is about displacement. The horrible feeling of not belonging, being seen, but not noticed. The feeling of being different to everybody else. Lucy yearns for a home without even knowing what a home is.

Racial abuse and exploitation, another theme that is explored by Zhang, with the Chinese miners being shipped over and treated little better than slaves. Working under the illusion and lies that they will make a better life for themselves.

Zhang explores sexual identity with Sam, dressing and pretending to be a man. This charade is played to deter sexual predators and to simply make things easier in what was a “mans” world. And yet, in contradiction, Lucy survives with no such deception.

The narrative is told in four parts with parts one to three rolling backwards in time. As the narrative rolls backward, the reader learns the history of Lucy and Sam’s parents. Part three is my favourite part, with the shade, ghost, spirit, call it what you will, of the father talking in the first person to Lucy. Seeking forgiveness and explaining how things went wrong, revealing the history of himself and their mother.

With the revealing of their history we find that Ba was teaching the Chinese miners, and in particular their mother, words in English. This is symbolized with each chapter having a one-word title that is relevant to the contents of that chapter. A wonderful touch.

Part four jumps into the future, and for me is the weakest part of the book. It feels a little rushed with Zhang trying to cram in too much information about the sibling’s history and revealing a major plot point that was never explored in the main narrative. However, this is intentional and meant to surprise the reader.

Zhang’s writing is quite beautiful and descriptive, most notably when describing the landscape. The prose is quite exquisite throughout the entire novel and is a highlight. Time for the old cliché, this novel does not feel like a debut at all and thoroughly deserves its place in the Booker longlist. 4.5 Stars.
Profile Image for Richard Derus.
2,855 reviews1,884 followers
March 14, 2021
Real Rating: 2.5* of five

I think there's bleak, and then there's misery porn. Sam's trick with the half-carrot at the beginning is all I needed to know it's misery porn we're gettin' to here. Gave up at Lucy finding the fingers in their chest, and from that image never once looked back.

This quote seems to get a lot of love:
And wasn’t that the real reason for traveling, a reason bigger than poorness and desperation and greed and fury—didn’t they know, low in their bones, that as long as they moved and the land unfurled, that as long as they searched, they would forever be searchers and never quite lost?

It's an excellent sample of tone and style; if you're into it, this book's for you.
Profile Image for Lark Benobi.
Author 1 book1,637 followers
July 28, 2020
Zhang has created a vocabulary and a cadence for this novel that is unique, and that carries the story forward from one page to the next. It's a pleasure to read. A question that came to my mind was whether the novel derives its momentum from the magnificent language rather than from the story itself. Sometimes I felt the writing, however magnificent, didn't serve the apparent intention of the story. Sometimes the characters seemed to suffer simply because the author could imagine fantastic scenes for them to suffer through, rather than their suffering being intrinsically important to their human story. As I read I had the impression that the author inhabits language in this story she's telling, rather than living inside of her characters. That's how I interpreted an early scene, for instance, where a child has just shot at a bank teller in a crowded bank, and then in the next scene the child is magically somewhere else...just how did she get away? The writing is so rich that maybe it doesn't matter to most readers but it did to me. These are value judgments unique to my way of reading. I noticed now and then, as I read, that I was reacting to scenes not as human happenings, but as beautifully told, abstract what-ifs.

I think this novel will soar and sing for any reader who loves Michael Ondaatje, whose books leave me feeling the same way. I'm glad I read the novel, and I'm glad that it gave me the opportunity to think about what didn't work for me about it, too, because it has helped me to understand better why I read.
Profile Image for Antoinette.
716 reviews32 followers
December 2, 2020
This book started off slow for me- I feared it would be another book that I was reading just because I had too (book club) and not enjoying.

But then I became invested and more so when I learned Ba’s story. From that point on, I could not stop reading.

This book opens with 2 sisters, Lucy and Sam, whose father has just died and as per Chinese custom, they must find a perfect place to bury him. A place that feels like home.

“What makes a home a home?”

That is a question that comes up frequently throughout this book. The Chinese people in the California gold rush times were ostracized and made to feel like outsiders. Even though they were the principal labourers in the construction of the railroad, they were never recognized. They were integral in the development of the West, but always marginalized.

This book is about the survival of Lucy and Sam. It is about being true to your family. It is about stories- stories that embrace one’s past and one’s heritage. It is about land and its toughness and its beauty.

By the end of this book, my heart felt wounded for the hardships faced by these young girls and their treatment because of their race.

It took a while to get into but I certainly appreciated this book and its beautiful lyrical writing.
Profile Image for Emily M.
255 reviews
August 30, 2020
2.5 stars

What's great: the title. Poetic, intriguing and yet also literal

What's good: The revamped Western with ethnic diversity and tigers, the twist that transforms our perceptions of the Ba character in the second half, pacing.

What's fine: The Lucy character, Chinese prospector's daughter, trying to make her way in the hardscrabble West.

What's frankly annoying: Sam, Lucy's gender-noncomforming younger sister. Lucy and Sam's relationship was straight out of a creative writing class -- there must be conflict at all times to move the plot forward! Unfortunately, since the reader is largely along with Lucy for the ride, this just resulted in my wanting to slap Sam for most of the first half of the novel.

What's really very bad: the prose. Many people find the prose here gorgeous so it will very much be a case of what you like. I dislike books written in the present tense, so my hackles were raised from the start, but there's also a kind of heavily signalled poeticism to it all that verges on the grammatically incorrect: "Heat makes sap, and blood, rise faster. Lucy's hand so sweat-slippery around her friends." "Those dirty streets cracked open after dark like the spines of schoolbooks." This prose is the definition of trying too hard. I know they teach them to write like this in those creative writing programs, but really.

What's ridiculous: Having been quietly brutal throughout, the conclusion is a kind of hipster portrayal of an element of old west life that should have been just as brutal as what preceded it. Besides, why were two major characters introduced and dispensed with within two chapters? It felt rushed.

In many ways, this book is better than two stars. It's certainly accomplished, and many of my issues are personal peeves. I think I felt that it didn't bring much new to the table, however, except for diversifying the Westerns cast (which in itself is worth doing, I admit). Other Westerns or quasi-Westerns in recent years have also put a new spin on the genre, such as The Englishman's Boy, In the Distance, most of Cormac McCarthy, or even The Luminaries and this one ultimately promised more than it delivered.
Profile Image for Jonathan.
159 reviews92 followers
December 27, 2019
“What makes a ghost a ghost? Can a person be haunted by herself?”
How much of these hills is gold was simply put, one of the best novels I’ve read in years. A stunning story that was dripping with originality and writing that bled truth on every page. Absolutely transcendent of todays typical novel this book broke barriers and literally had me captivated late into the night, and the only thing C Pam Zhang left me with was an unbearable need for more, of her writing, of her beautiful short prose and poetic sentences that blew me away. Regardless of “award status” ( which I’m going to already call that this one will be everywhere come next fall) this is the first book on my top of 2020 list sofar. A true gift to the literary world.
Set in the midwest from the beginning of the gold rush all the way to the end of it, Zhang opens the novel with the death of Ba, who is the father of two young Asian girls that have already lost their mother. Their father now dead they must travel away from the only “home” they have known and find a place to bury him. Not since Cormac McCarthy or Larry McMurtry has anyone written so feverishly about the American midwest, so descriptive and destructive, bringing to life all the beauty and ravished land these sisters encounter. To put even more of an original spin on things, Lucy ( the older of the two) was never close with her father, and Sam, the youngest identifies more as a male due to the toxic upbringing of her father who so desperately wanted a son so he raised his youngest to be one and she finds along the way that maybe she was meant to be a man all along, and identifies as the male gender.
Told over four parts we see the past, present, and future of this family. Part three was my favorite and a heart splitting letter from the ghost of Ba to Lucy explaining his and her mothers life before them, why he did what he did, the secrets kept, and the hardships endured, I was broken by the fact it was never truly told to her but more a fictitious telling of their past. However, that section alone was Pulitzer caliber writing, utterly hypnotized doesn’t even do justice to what that part and this entire novel did to me. A story we’ve never heard, immigrants in America, in the 19th century, not welcomed then, struggling with home and family, sadly still fighting the same fight today. A true genius novel. Be prepared to be blown away.
Profile Image for K.J. Charles.
Author 58 books7,641 followers
January 19, 2022
Highly recommended book about two Chinese American children in the post gold-rush West trying to survive. The writing seems good but they are lugging their father's decomposing corpse around with them in a box while bits drop off it, and I am really not in the right place for this so noping out.
Profile Image for Emily .
711 reviews72 followers
June 22, 2020
A DNF for me. Hated the way it was written - which I guess is why a lot of people claim to like it. All that flowery language and long rambling nonsense just bores me.
Profile Image for Jerrie.
977 reviews123 followers
June 1, 2020
There are a lot of pros and cons to this novel. It was refreshing to read an account of the American West from a different perspective. The landscape writing was beautiful and the story represented the struggle and hardships of the gold rush well. The writing was elegant, but so much so that it left me feeling distant from the story. Characters were a little too cliché in many cases as well. Overall, a solid debut, but maybe too polished to draw me in.
Profile Image for Linda.
Author 2 books136 followers
November 28, 2020
C Pam Zhang’s stunning debut novel examines the myth of the American West from the vantage point of marginalized Chinese immigrants whose role in the California Gold Rush has rarely been acknowledged. The story begins in 1862 and focuses on two sisters Lucy,12, and Sam,11 (who identifies as male.) The children’s prospector/ miner father, Ba has died and the children whose mother had died earlier must bury him and survive. The book chronicles their struggle in a world defined by racism and poverty and moves back and forth in time providing the backstory of the children’s lives and the lives of their parents. The writing is lyrical and the characters are finely drawn. I came away with a deeper understanding of the Chinese- American experience and a fuller more complex picture of the history of the American West.
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