What makes a book a book?

‘How Much of These Hills is Gold’ by C. Pam Zhang reinforces how stories must be told


Fatimah Williamson (10), Lynn Chien (12), Mrs. Regina Roybal and Kristyann Esteron (12) attend Black Mountain Institute and Literary Society Luncheon with author C Pam Zhang.

Fatimah Williamson, Arts Editor

“History is not static. It can belong to all of us.” -C Pam Zhang at the Literary Society Luncheon on April 3.

“How Much of These Hills is Gold” is C Pam Zhang’s debut novel which explores themes of generational traumas, racial inequality, healing, and the symbolism in culture. The story is set during the end of the gold rush, following two siblings, Sam and Lucy, after their father dies in his sleep. The novel travels through time, showing the family’s life while both parents were alive and their financial struggles as they suffered through discrimination and desperation. The novel features the father’s recalling of how he met their mother, through his own ghostly recollection. It then closes with a continuation of the siblings’ lives after they go their separate ways and find themselves reconnecting after a tumultuous past.

Zhang’s work shows the gritty side of struggle. It doesn’t romanticize or sugar-coat the challenges underprivileged, marginalized groups face. Set historically in the desert during the gold rush, the narrative circles around family strife and traumas that families of color share during times of increased desperation. The author illustrates the emotions of the characters in a visceral and physical way; sometimes grotesque, the descriptions allow readers to visualize and empathize with a struggle that most privileged groups won’t usually acknowledge in their day-to-day lives.

What makes this book especially notable is the symbolism and depth of the characters. The characters frequently speak Mandarin, integrating their background and heritage into the flow and tone of the story. The gold that they search for is representative not only of wealth and well being, but of the equality, freedom, and dreams that they are constantly prevented from achieving. Everything that happens to the characters, the parents as well as the children, affects their behavior in the future. The story establishes a sense of consequence, as each event leaves a mark on them, influencing their actions and reactions in the future. The depictions of survival and trauma are realistic and jarring to read. 

“‘Girls, you know the only thing in this territory more powerful than a gun?’ ‘Tigers,’ Sam says. ‘History?’ Lucy says. ‘Family,’ Ma says, hugging her stomach. Ba shakes his head. Closes his eyes. ‘I mean to buy a big parcel of land out in these hills.’”

Through the family’s battle to thrive on land stolen by people who don’t see them as equal or human, each member copes and reacts in different ways. They all have different stories and mindsets, showing the different sides to the struggle. The mother, an Asian immigrant, is exhausted and drained by the constant struggle. She is reserved from the father, having her hope drained long ago, only staying to keep the family together. Ma wants to go back home, where there are people who look like her, where she felt a sense of community. She feels hopeless in America, where her family’s efforts seem hopeless. 

Ba’s approach is to work hard, feeling that no matter what, that will earn them a place at the table. He stops at nothing to provide for his family, though still burdened by the demons of grief and exhaustion. He makes constant promises, incessant propositions, and shows extreme ambition. Though Ba has a sense of drive, he also chooses to ignore, at times, the truth that the place at the table is held by the white men who run things. He overlooks the fact that as long as these men are in charge, they will also do anything to prevent his family from earning a home, let alone status and freedom in America. 

Sam and Lucy are children, shaped by the examples their parents make and by the world around them. Sam takes after their father, ambitious and fickle, stopping at nothing for survival. Sam admires tales of tigers and gold that their father tells, striving to be strong and resilient, traits they see in their father. Sam goes on to make risky decisions that mirror the risky decisions and promises that Ba makes. Sam stops at nothing to gain freedom, and that is both a vice and a virtue. 

Lucy takes more after her mother, accepting a more reserved approach to her family’s situation. She values education and refinement, as her mother teaches her that being cunning and smart can help her get out of tough situations. Lucy has a teacher who more or less treats her family’s toils as an opportunity for profit. Teacher Leigh forces the idea of assimilation and professionalism onto Lucy. She then unknowingly learns that her family and their culture, behaviors, and struggles with impoverishment are considered to be “savage” and undesirable to adults and peers. She learns to be ashamed of her family and culture, being taught that assimilation is the only way to survive in the western world. Lucy, like her mother, struggles with issues of loyalty and passivity. Lucy is like water, malleable and reflective. 

The four different perspectives relate to the nuanced approach Zhang took towards concepts of the “American Dream,” the Asian-American experience, and how history is told and subsequently retold by those with the intent to erase important stories. The perspectives of the characters divulge the truth about the idea of the “American Dream”; it doesn’t work in a place that doesn’t view everyone as equal. The characters each try to find their truth in a world that erases their history, denies their humanity, and hoards gold for itself. 

“Sam falls upon the food with an old ferocity. Lucy spins her water glass, remembering starvation.” 

The two siblings are products of their environment, two different pictures of trauma, identity, and experience. In the end, it is Sam and Lucy dealing with the outcome of their upbringing and moving forward as they formulate their own identities and beliefs around their new experiences and feelings. The two are almost opposites, Sam being more daring and reckless, while Lucy is more pensive and almost paralyzed by indecision. The novel expresses how trauma can deeply impact a person, and explores how differently affected people might move forward in their lives. It tells a story of loss and destruction, and poses many questions to the reader, about the reader’s understanding of both the world and the cause-and-effect relationship between trauma and actions. 

“How Much of These Hills is Gold” is a book that, even in the title, introduces questions that seem one-note or flat. “How much of these hills is gold?” “What makes a family a family?” “How can you get ahead in a world that only pushes you behind?” And, most importantly, “What could you possibly ask for after you’ve had everything, tangible and intangible, taken from you?”

These questions are what make “How Much of These Hills is Gold” a novel entirely worth reading. Opening up dialogue that not often goes overlooked is crucial in creating a diverse, empathetic, and united society. Unknown stories must be heard, not silenced. Though gruesome, heartbreaking, and perplexing, stories must be told, not silenced.