How Much of These Hills is Gold
by
C.Pam Zhang

In How Much of These Hills is Gold C.Pam Zhang attempts a bold re writing of the myth of ‘How the West was won’. In her “Re imagined American West” she tells us about some of the people who were omitted from the familiar narrative of pioneers heading west in their wagon trains to the promise of land and freedom.
          The setting is in California in the 1860’s during the twilight years of the Gold Rush. Zhang paints a harsh raw land that has been devastated by the influx of settlers, mining companies and greed. The buffalo are gone, only their bones inhabit the landscape, the rivers are poisoned from coal mining, the indigenous people pushed off their lands and the victims of genocide. This is an inhospitable world and even more so for those on the ‘outside’ of society such as the Chinese Americans, whether immigrant or American born. GRIM is the word most of the book club readers used to describe the book, and the grimness did’nt lift for it’s entirety.
          At the centre of the story are two sisters, Lucy who is 11 and Sam who is 10, both Chinese American born to Ma and Pa. Ma came from China on a ‘labour’ ship, destined to work for the railway. Pa is American born, rescued by Native Americans as a baby when his parents mysteriously die in the desert. Now Ma is gone and Pa, an abusive alcoholic, has died in their miners shack. The girls have been taught the rituals of burial by Ma so they need two silver dollars for Pa’s eyes to bury him, so they set off into town to beg or borrow the money but to no avail. So following a botched robbery and a gun incident at the bank they steal a horse and become outlaws. They leave town with their dead fathers body tucked inside Ma’s medicine trunk strapped onto the horses back.
          Thus starts their quest to find a burial place for Pa, and a home. Zhang asks ‘When is a home a home’ throughout the book.
          The girls go on an almost mythological journey in search of a home for Pa’s now disintegrating putrid corpse, parts of which are falling out of the trunk along the roadside. It’s a grim almost horror like picture as the girls wander through this brutal landscape finding shelter in buffalo skeletons from torrential rain and wind. There are wild animals to look out for and the ghost of a mythological tiger at their tail. They encounter a dodgy Old Timer who tells them of a place called ‘Sweetwater’, where they can go and start a new life, be ‘seen’ just like everyone else.
          Lucy embraces Sweetwater and wants a conventional life whereas Sam wants to remain an outlaw and so they go their separate ways. After seven years Sam returns and convinces Lucy to leave Sweetwater as she has never and will never be accepted there for who she really is. They must go back to the mother country China to be really ‘seen’ and to find ‘home’. The story takes a few more twists and turns but it is enough to say that there is sadness, sacrifice and grimness to the end.
          Zhang deals with so many issues in the book such as racism, sexism, childhood abuse, slave labour, greed, gender identity, social exclusion, prostitution, injustices against the environment, animals and indigenous people. I feel that by trying to include so many issues in very obvious ways that the story suffered in it’s telling as there were many loose ends to be tidied up and unanswered questions.
          Despite all the grimness, unrelenting sadness and lack of hope it was agreed that it was also a very evocative book and that Zhang, who is only in her early 20’s, can certainly write and will hopefully develop her craft into the future. She was asked in an interview what home was for her and she replied “Home is people-a feeling more than a place”. The saying ‘Home is where the heart is’ comes to mind and I hope Zhang finds some heart and hope in her future writings.

Alison Claffey
Dublin Unitarian Church


Cover