How Much of These Hills Is Gold: A Novel

by C Pam Zhang

Hardcover, 2020

Call number




Riverhead Books (2020), 280 pages


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.

Media reviews

In this outstanding debut, Zhang does more than just push against the cowboy narrative: She shoves it clear out of the way.....Misdirection abounds here, but the novel’s grave tone seldom wavers. Eleven and 12 years old, respectively, when the novel opens, sisters Sam and Lucy are 3½ years past
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the loss of their mother when their father, Ba, dies one night...If anything puts the cowboy narrative out to pasture in this novel, it’s Sam....
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2 more
Sure to be the boldest debut of the year, How Much of These Hills Is Gold by American writer C Pam Zhang grapples with the legend of the wild west and mines brilliant new gems from a well-worn setting..The story is heavy with layers of trauma, starting with the grim humour of the children, Lucy and
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Sam, dragging around their own father’s rotting corpse... Through Zhang’s deep attention, the classic western is given a rich new shading as race, gender, sexual identity, poverty and pubescence come into play. The novel is thick with detail, metaphor and oblique allusion – so much so that the story has to fight through the language. But at its core is a chilling sense of the utter loneliness and isolation felt by Lucy and Sam. How Much of These Hills Is Gold is an impressive debut. Though sometimes weighed down by the sheer heft of its language and atmospherics, it rewards patient reading. The prose carries an airless, uniquely pungent flavour. By the end, it has built into an epic, powerfully wrought journey, and it is refreshing to discover a new author of such grand scale, singular focus and blistering vision.
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Like William Faulker's As I Lay Dying, C Pam Zhang's debut novel opens with a body in need of burying...Zhang's style can be densely, airlessly lovely. Self-conscious lyricism fills the page like all that California dust, sometimes making it hard to breathe....The novel also depends so heavily on
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foreshadowing that it feels like we might be in a de Chirico painting. For Zhang's characters, any good thing — a baby, a new friend, sudden money — spells disaster, a feature which drains suspense and makes it impossible to sustain any hope for them. To read this novel the way it wants to be read — earnestly, wholeheartedly — would be to be in a perpetual state of longing and disappointment...... With Zhang, we hear the shredders coming from miles away — and it's hard not to resent that emotional manipulation. But Zhang also unspools sophisticated ideas about land, ownership, rootedness, and history.
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User reviews

LibraryThing member Narshkite
Geez this was a frustrating read. There were elements I liked, but three things kept me from really enjoying this, or even thinking much of the craft.

The first issue was the biggest for me -- Why on earth does Zhang include Mandarin in the book? The Chinese people depicted (not people of means who
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would have been called to court) are from Guangzhou. In the time covered they would have spoken Cantonese, potentially a smattering of Fujianese, and chances are quite high they would never have heard a word of Mandarin. It was not until the Nationalists had settled into power in 1911 (maybe a couple years later, I cannot recall) that China became linguistically united under Mandarin and likely fewer than half the people spoke the language until the Communists got there and started forcing the issue in a major way. Even now probably a quarter of the people in China don't speak Mandarin, and a lot of those people are Cantonese speakers from Guangzhou. What the hell, Pam? This is basic stuff. The barest acquaintance with Chinese history (like Wikipedia level) would have revealed this fact. Every time the pinyin started I was pushed out of the story. Additionally, this is historical fiction, and I found I did not trust the writer or her editor to have done any research. I did not believe anything here was researched, zero historical accuracy means I had to read this as fantasy, not historical fiction. It did not work as fantasy at all.

My second problem was the weird use of magical realism. Zhang used none other than the occasional cameo appearance by, or reference to a sighting of, a roaming tiger. In California. You either have to embrace magical realism or avoid it, you can't just have perhaps 3 brief references to MR and expect the reader to jump into the illusion. Or what do I know, maybe along with thinking Chinese people from Canton spoke Mandarin in the 19th century she also thought there were tigers in California? I mean, cougars are big cats, maybe she thinks they are the same as tigers, and she was not going for magical realism at all? Anyway, she kept quoting the tiger song in Mandarin so insult to injury.

Problem number three was the writing itself, and this is a question of taste. IMHO this was wildly overwritten. There are other books people love which I consider overwritten (The Shadow of the Wind and All the Light We Cannot See are the two worst offenders. The Shadow of the Wind also misused words over and over, but we are not here to talk about that book so I will shut up.) This book though, this book used a whole lot of words to evoke ... I seriously do not know what.... where a sparer approach would have been most welcome.

I liked the relationship between Sam and Lucy, and I wish Zhang had better helped us to see the reason for their attachment, their truly unconditional love. In the second half of the book I really liked the way they played off one another, but in the first half Sam was pretty awful -- I understood why, and I wasn't mad at him, but it did not make for a great foundation for their later connection unless it was simply shared pain. This was not a major issue at all though, like I said I liked their interplay.

Not a miserable read, but really disappointing since I was looking forward to a smart nuanced western and that is absolutely not what I got.

ETA: I just checked and Zhang is Chinese -- people from Beijing forget there are other places in China, so the refusal to acknowledge languages other than that which they speak up in the north capital makes more sense.
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LibraryThing member bell7
Lucy and Sam need to bury their Ba, but as poor Chinese orphans living in the American West just after the Gold Rush, no one wants to give them the needed silver dollars, and they must leave town.

At once a sweeping tale with a close focus on family, this debut novel shows a lot of promise. We
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mostly get the close third person of Lucy's point of view as she navigates her world, but we also get a glimpse of the family's backstory as well in what was my favorite part of the book. Beautiful descriptions, especially about the land, and wanting to know what would ultimately happen to Lucy kept me reading, though the tone is bleak and the plot a little disjointed. Not perfect, but an interesting story, and I'll definitely try another book by this author should she write more.
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LibraryThing member KimMeyer
Beautifully written, but this just never captured my attention.
LibraryThing member richardderus
Rating: 2.5* of five

I think there's bleak, and then there's misery porn. Sam's trick with the 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 and never once looked back.

This quote seems to get a lot of love:
And wasn’t
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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.
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LibraryThing member Beamis12
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 if 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
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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.
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LibraryThing member reader1009
historical fiction (Chinese-American siblings fend for themselves after the death of their gold-prospecting father; LGBTQAI trans/non-binary gender interest)
Rich, lyrical prose and storytelling that sometimes drags in parts. I liked it, but felt it could've done with significant editing.
LibraryThing member boredgames
brilliant, plotted well, pacey, lyrical, has something new and original to say about Chineseness, gender identity and the immigrant experience.
LibraryThing member Beth.Clarke
I haven't read much about asian immigrants in the wild west. There's a lot of flashbacks in the novel which didn't always work for me. I kept want to hear the protagonists current story, not flashback to their childhood. Although there's a lot that worked in the novel as well. The characterization
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is fantastic. I felt like I knew Sam and Lucy, yet they surprised me in a way that made the novel enjoyable. I'd give it 3 starts, but I'm adding an extra for the new historical fiction setting as well as the themes of immigration, gender roles, and family.
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LibraryThing member MM_Jones
A beautifully written story of adventure, of siblings, a child's memory, a family and what is home. On a broader level the story explores race and belonging. What it is not is true to the setting. The author purports to set the story in California at the end of the gold rush, but only selects a few
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bits and pieces. It makes it difficult to believe in the truth of the experience.
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LibraryThing member chrisblocker
How Much of These Hills Is Gold has such a powerful and unforgettable beginning. It grabs a reader's interest and leaves them with some haunting images. The writing in these opening scenes is so vivid and strong. The bulk of the middle is comparatively dry in regards to story, through it's full of
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the same strong writing. The final section ties everything together nicely. I personally got really excited when I saw hints of East of Eden in the story's concluding chapters. I anticipated a parallel moment with Lucy and Sam in the brothel, but the story went in a different direction. This was probably best, since that story, the story of Cal and Aron, has already been written. (The similarity did make me wonder if this was a bit of a nod to Steinbeck, though????)
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LibraryThing member Dreesie
A new-style western, which opens with the two adolescent kids of a Chinese family in California. Lucy and Sam are on the run, and as the story moves forward and backward in time, we learn more about their parents and their origins, the family's life together trying to make enough money to buy land,
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and their secrets.

As teens, Lucy and Sam go their separate ways. Lucy wants to live an educated, civilized life. Sam wants a rough-and-tumble Western life. But as they realize neither can have the life they want, they make another plan.

Zhang has taken the California Dream that brought people from around the world to prospect for gold and given it a twist--but not too much of a twist. She has prospectors, miners for hire, railroads, gold towns, Chinese immigration, and San Francisco all here. In some ways this book reminded me of [book:In the Distance|34381330] in the hopes and dreams, the never quite fitting in, and the variety of jobs held and distances covered. In other ways, though, they are completely different--who is the hero in this book? There are no larger-than-life characters. These characters feel all to real in their hopes, dreams, and experiences.
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LibraryThing member maryreinert
The idea of this book sounded interesting; it dealt with a facet of history that is rarely touched on--the Chinese role in the building of the West. The plot is not linear but moves back and forth in time. Lucy is the main character along with her younger sister, Samantha, who goes by Sam after the
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stillborn death of a boy to the family. Lucy's father Ba is a coal miner having lost gold that he found as a prospector. Her mother Ma dies in childbirth. Sam becomes Ba's "boy" going to the mines and basically becoming a boy. After the sudden death of Ba, Lucy and Sam take the body to be buried somewhere. This is particularly grim and almost nauseating. As the story unfolds, the characters of Ba and Ma evolve.

There were some parts that I enjoyed reading and then there was much that I just plain didn't understand what the author was trying to say. At places just plain weird.
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LibraryThing member LibroLindsay
Grim and beautiful. I have never read a book like this before. This is Zhang's first novel?!
LibraryThing member books-n-pickles
It's always a relief when a book I've been eagerly looking forward to reading doesn't disappoint.

[Mild spoilers (such as structure and setting changes) throughout, with additional spoilers behind tags.]

We begin with 12-year-old Lucy, newly responsible for 11-year-old Sam, who shows tendencies of
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being like their impulsive, abusive father...the father who has just died, leaving them orphans, penniless and at the mercy of everyone in their coal mining town who dislikes them for not looking like everyone else. So Lucy and Sam set off into the California wilderness with their father's body, looking for an appropriate place to bury a man whose prospecting dreams carried them all over the west without finding one place to call home.

Zhang evocatively paints a beautiful but dying land for their journey--a place where water has been poisoned, majestic buffalo and tigers have been driven to extinction, and mountains are being blasted to make way for railroads. The first section of the book is largely psychological, as Lucy grapples with what, if anything, she owes her dead father and emotionally distant Sam...with what makes a family and what makes a home. She doesn't look to the future, not when Sam's quest for the perfect place to bury their father seems like it might cost them their lives.

Part II takes us back several years, when Lucy and Sam still lived with their mother and father in a miserable hut in the coal-mining town. We meet a Ba whose prospecting dreams of striking it rich have been all but broken; a Sam who still has beautiful long hair but gravitates toward Ba; a Lucy who favors her mother in all but looks and whose intelligence intrigues the local intellectual-turned-schoolteacher; and a magnetic Ma who uses her beauty and strong will to keep the family fed, housed, and--in Lucy's case--educated. Money is next to nonexistent when Ma becomes pregnant...but then Ba reveals that he hasn't been spending evenings gambling away his earnings, and suddenly money becomes a worry in a very new way.

Most authors would have started with this section, but Zhang's choice to unspool Lucy and Sam's quest to bury their father first (instead of just as a prologue) gives Lucy an interesting psychological depth: if we know her mind when she's older, how did she get to be there in the first place? Zhang uses the early focus on Lucy's interior life to set up themes and images that will recur throughout the book--not only the words that serve as chapter headings (blood, water, meat, mud, etc.), but tigers, buffalo, the land, family, home, and (of course) gold--so that we're actively reading for them once we hit the more conventional A-to-B plot structure.

I fully expected to return to Lucy and Sam after showing us how Ma and Ba's hopes for a bright future go the way of most dreams in America, but Zhang surprised me with a step both forward and backward in time, with the ghost of Lucy's father telling her his story on the eve of his body's burial. It turns out that Ba isn't Chinese. He was an orphan raised on Californian soil by the surviving members of local tribes that had been decimated by European settlers. To him, any gold belongs to the people like them who grew up in those hills, and he decides to get some of his own. While working, he agrees to accompany Chinese laborers from seashore to mines--not realizing until they step off the boat that the boss assumes he can speak their language. Fortunately, he and Ma hit it off, learn each others' languages, and plot revenge on the bosses who lied to get cheap labor to agree to board their ship. Unfortunately, their revenge spirals out of control.

We skip ahead again, back to Lucy, several years after burying Ba. She's settled into a more comfortable life in town, working at hotels and acting as a kind of "kept friend" to a wealthy miner's daughter. She knows that comfort will soon be disrupted when her friend marries a man that Lucy knows better than she'd like, but then Sam returns after years of absence and complicates everything. Like Part II, this section would seem more conventional and linear if it weren't for what came before it.

Zhang also managed to surprise me with the ending. I actually put the book down for a couple days because I knew that things were going to turn sour and I didn't want to face them...but, like the nonlinear plot, the ending didn't go the way I expected it to. The result was much better than what I was expecting, at least in terms of storytelling. I'm once again curious to go pick up a copy of this book in the store, to see if the end is still the same as it is in this advanced reader's copy.

This was the rare book that lived up to my expectations, in large part because it was very much not what I expected (in large part because of the cover copy).

If you love character- and place-driven stories, I highly recommend How Much of These Hills Is Gold---and I look forward to seeing what Zhang writes in the future.

[This book deserves a quote roundup but after reading about 60 books this year (!) I'm getting review fatigue. 8-( Sorry. But also not--the language is beautiful, go read this one!]
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LibraryThing member alexrichman
Feminist Cormac McCarthy is the elevator pitch - and it’s not far off. Compelling throughout, even if I wasn’t too keen on the structure. I’ll definitely be looking out for Zhang’s next one.
LibraryThing member Gwendydd
The genre of the Western has been around for ages, yet in both TV and books, Westerns focus almost exclusively on white characters. When people of color show up in Westerns, they're usually secondary characters. So it's refreshing to read a Western that focuses on Chinese characters.

Lucy and Sam
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are young teenagers when their parents both die. At the beginning of the book, all we know is that their parents are Chinese, and the siblings must find somewhere safe to live. The book unfolds slowly, eventually revealing details of their parents' lives as immigrants and gold prospectors, Lucy's experiences at school, and the deaths of their parents.

The book is told primarily from Lucy's point of view. Sam is an enigmatic and interesting character, both to Lucy and to the reader. Sam was born and raised as a girl, but upon their mother's death, started dressing and acting as a boy. The author carefully avoids using pronouns at all to talk about Sam. The bond between Lucy and Sam is very strong, and Lucy loves Sam no matter what Sam's gender presentation is, and never really questions it, knowing that Sam is going to do things Sam's way.

The characters are interesting, and the story is compelling, but the writing is uneven. There's a jarring section that is told by the ghost of their father - it seems like the author could have found a more graceful way to include the parents' backstory. The first few chapters have some incredibly disgusting details that also don't make much logistical sense (the siblings cut up their father's corpse and put it in a trunk, which they strap to the back of a horse, and the corpse rots and parts of it keep falling out of the trunk - there are so many things wrong with this that I don't know where to begin, but mostly I want to know what kind of trunk closes so badly that body parts can fall out of it).

Despite the uneven writing, this is a good story about the quest for a place to belong, and it's important to get another perspective on the experience of the Western.
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LibraryThing member Castlelass
As the story opens, siblings Lucy, 12, and Sam, 11, have just been orphaned by the death of their father. They seek a place to bury him. It is a story told mostly through the eyes of Lucy, a child of Chinese immigrant laborers. The plot follows their growth and development as they encounter many
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obstacles and challenges. It is set in the hills of California during the time period 1842 to 1862. The author weaves together a family’s history, Chinese folklore (tigers), racial prejudice, transcontinental railroads, and the California Gold Rush. It is a story of establishing a sense of home, identity, and belonging.

It contains an “anti-western” theme – telling the story of immigrants who received little credit for a massive amount of work. I am not overly fond of the ending, but very much enjoyed writing style and creativity.
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LibraryThing member thiscatsabroad
Had to abort it ... was soooooooo depressing.
LibraryThing member mkapij
This book was remarkable that even while reading it I was catching myself saying the whole story could be transplanted infinite times from the western gold rush setting to so many others and still be a beautiful telling of the richest stories of life.
LibraryThing member Daumari
A solid debut that really captured the dry loveliness of the western landscape in a time when the land didn't love you back. Lucy and Sam scramble to survive after their Ba dies. About halfway through we see a couple years prior when they're younger and Ma is still around, and then from beyond the
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grave Ba tells his tale as a youth carrying his own secrets.

Not a cheerful ending, but contemplative.
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LibraryThing member caedocyon
Oct 2020: DNF. I can't with the literary misery, especially right now.

Dec 2023: Also, this will forever remain in my memory as The One Where The Children Carry Their Father's Decomposing Body Around In A Chest And Pieces Start Falling Off Of It And The Daughter Sees Her Father's Penis Fall Off And
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Kicks Dirt Over It And Revels In Her Power Over Him. Like, I get that it's supposed to be symbolic and surreal, but it's actually an unintentional parody of the entire genre.
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LibraryThing member dbsovereign
How much of this story is gold! Zhang uses a variety of narrative devices to help us through a maze of different points of view. In its struggle to survive multiple hardships, the modes she employs help us to understand the economic and racial challenges that the family faces on its journey through
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the Gold Rush. In addition, the two children that figure prominently struggle with identity issues and acceptance as they travel into adulthood. At times a read one must work at to understand, the book nevertheless has a certain grandeur and a splendid knack for creating myth out of the mundane.

"What she does to him is the only thing she has, and she won't give it away." Zhang does not give her story away either, but allows us to gradually absorb it. This is an epic tale.
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LibraryThing member mojomomma
I didn't enjoy this book, but it was haunting. Lucy and Sam are orphaned sisters. They struggle to make their way in mid-19th century California. Sam does this by passing as a boy. Another reviewer characterized this book as Faulknerian and I think that is a good description. It is painful to
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listen to or read.
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Booker Prize (Longlist — 2020)
Lambda Literary Award (Finalist — 2021)
Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature (Winner — Adult Fiction — 2021)
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