How Much of These Hills Is Gold
C Pam Zhang
A note about the spoilers: While my usual practice is to spoil everything in sight, that’s not going to work in this case because you really need to go into this blind. There will still be a few non-critical spoilers, but otherwise I am attempting not to spill everything. Wish me luck.
Sun’s sinking down these hills and here you are sinking too. I know the sort of bone-deep tired you and Sam must feel these days as you run. I know what it is to flee with your past panting behind, claws extending in the dark. I’m not a cruel man, whatever you think.
Lucy girl, there were plenty of times I wanted to give you a soft, easy life. But if I did, the world would gnaw you down like these buffalo bones.
Night’s the only time I got now, and this wind the only sort of voice. I have your ear till sunup. It’s not too late, yet.
Lucy girl, there’s only one story worth telling now.
This book is so beautiful.
How Much of These Hills Is Gold is the story of Lucy and Sam, a pair of Chinese American children born at the tail end of the California Gold Rush. Their mother (Ma) is gone; their father (Ba) dies shortly afterwards, leaving Lucy and Sam to make their own way in a country that either hates them or doesn’t know what they are. Trailed by ghostly tigers and the memory of long-dead buffalo, they go on the run and trek across the countryside in an attempt to find a proper burial site for Ba. Eventually they separate; ladylike Lucy settles down in a town called Sweetwater, where she manages to become the companion of a wealthy white girl, while Sam goes adventuring. After a couple of years they meet again and find themselves together on the road once more, until trouble catches up with them. In the gap between their separation and their reunion, Ba takes over the story, speaking as a ghost in Lucy’s ear, and recounts his life as an American-born Chinese, up to and including his marriage to Ma. Through it all, the narrative deftly explores the multitudinous facets of race, gender, language, sibling dynamics, and – ultimately – the meaning of home.
The writing in itself is gorgeous, but this story speaks to me on so many levels. It speaks to me as an Asian who grew up amid scattered memories of my ancestors’ cultures and mythologies, and it speaks to me as an American who would be lost if I suddenly got deported to China or Japan. It speaks to me as a person of color who has more than once run up against white obliviousness, which – while not generally ill-intentioned or even entirely conscious – can still leave a mark. It speaks to me as a firstborn child who, given the same set of circumstances, would both resent and take care of my younger siblings at all costs. Above all, it speaks to me as a Cantonese person who does not speak Cantonese, and as a Japanese person who only knows the handful of words and phrases with which I was raised. When one parent is at least partially fluent and the other is not, oftentimes there’s less of a chance for the children to gain fluency during early childhood, and this is precisely what happened to Lucy and Sam, who know bits and pieces of Chinese from what their mother mixes into her English but are not fluent.
“Ting wo, Lucy girl. What I meant to say that day was that beauty’s the kind of weapon that doesn’t last so long as others. If you choose to use it—mei cuo, there’s no shame. But you’re lucky. You have this too.” She raps Lucy’s head. “Xing le, xing le. Don’t cry.”
Aside from snippets of language and mythology, Lucy and Sam don’t have much of their heritage. They grow up among children who do not look like them, and are taught and influenced by adults who – aside from their parents – also do not look like them. This cultural disconnect forms the backbone of their story as they wander the West in search of a place to call home, or just to belong, and it is possibly the most heartbreaking part of the book. Raised among Americans, they absorb American ideas to such an extent that the thought of going “home” to China is enough to throw Lucy into a frenzy.
Then Ba is saying, Da zui, and he is lifting Lucy away. She screams into his shoulder as he carries her, kicking, up to the loft. By the time he’s carried Sam up too, the sloshing Lucy felt on the plateau has come to a boil.
“I won’t go,” Lucy says to him. “I don’t want to live with those other chinks.”
Straightaway the taste of wrongness. Like the mud pies the boys shaped in the schoolyard, forcing Lucy to lick them. She deserves a slapping. Ba only looks at her sadly. The taste is hers to swallow.
“That’s no word for you to learn, Lucy girl. Maybe your ma’s right to take you from here. This is the right word.”
If I ever heard any child of mine telling me something like that, my heart would break into a million tiny pieces. But that’s the thing with this book: it may be beautiful, but it’s also one long, never-ending heartbreak. Eleanor Oliphant‘s got nothing on Lucy and Sam, who have the added specters of race and homelessness to deal with on top of trauma and abuse. Though their paths diverge many times and in many different ways, they are both victimized over and over again by the oppressive forces running rampant through the American West. And yet the book is not completely without hope: it doesn’t exactly end on a high note, but there’s a slight whisper, a suggestion that things might eventually look up, if only temporarily. For the record, I am slightly glad that Lucy never makes it to China before the end of the book. It wouldn’t have been right for her, because her heart is in the hills in which she was raised and it’s never going anywhere else. She has so little connection to other Chinese people that there’d be no point in packing her off on the next boat. Without her mother to guide her, she’d be lost and overwhelmed. America is where she was born, and America is where she belongs, whether her fellow Americans know it or not.
Of course, this isn’t to say that I’m happy about where she lands, but I understand it all the same. It’s what happens. It’s the story of young women everywhere, without money, without choice, without friends or family to catch them when they fall. It’s the story of families that break around one person and never fully recover. It’s the story of immigration, of the constant fight to survive in a country that doesn’t want you. It’s the story of sibling rivalries and loyalties, old grudges and strange alliances and choices that can either unite or tear apart.
And, in the end, it’s the story of America.