Ba is half jerky and half swamp. His skinny limbs dried to brown rope. While his softer parts—groin, stomach, eyes—swim with greenish-white pools of maggots … Only Lucy and Sam look full on. He’s theirs, after all. And Lucy thinks—why, he is no worse than his face in a dozen other permutations, monstrous with drink or rage.
With this poetic and brutal description in her debut novel, author C. Pam Zhang neatly encapsulates the complicated relationship between Lucy, her gender-nonconforming sibling Sam, and their temperamental and abusive father, Ba. Told primarily in Lucy’s point of view, How Much of These Hills Is Gold follows the two Chinese-American children as they wander the American West searching for a place to bury their father, for acceptance and belonging, and for any place or people they can call home. With their father newly dead and mother long gone, the two children meander across the landscape—but also across their memories and feelings about both their parents and each other.
The term “Chinese-American” may be particularly apropos for Lucy and Sam. Both children could be considered American, though exactly which of the period’s gold-rush states was their precise place of birth is never clear ; neither of them utters the word “China,” only referring to the land beyond the ocean; they understand Mandarin in bits and pieces, but only in the context of their parents (the few times the siblings use Mandarin with each other is when evoking the memories and authority of their mother or father). The siblings don’t have connections to an Asian diaspora, then, but nor do they have family in California. The only place they know is “here,” yet in the course of their struggles many (white) characters assure them they cannot be American, only a permanent Other.
In Part One, memories haunt the two children. Lucy and Sam suffered in different ways at the hands of their parents. Sam takes on Ba’s violent and angry nature, as a survival tactic both against their father but also against a harsh world. Lucy, meanwhile, adopts a measured and conformist way of seeing the world, mirroring her mother. Even as the children journey alone together, Lucy can’t help but recall the lessons their parents taught them, so the prose gets intermixed with memories, leaving the reader unmoored in time.
Tonight the moonlight has pierced Sam through, made Sam’s thoughts clear as the blades of grass. Together they stand as if at a threshold, remembering the tiger Ma drew in the doorway of each new house. Ma’s tiger like no other tiger Lucy has seen, a set of eight lines suggesting the beast only if you squinted. A cipher. Ma drew her tiger as protection against what might come.
Yet even these memories prove to be mercurial, indistinct, and hazy with subjectivity. The children engage in their own myth-making, mixing in and mixing up stories from their parents into a shared folklore which is both “inaccurate” to reality but accurate to their experiences. They see and hear tigers, their protector, in the skulls and bones scattered amongst the California hills. They carry two silver dollars to bury with their father, a ritual their mother taught them. Buffalo haunt them as rumors and bones, almost mystical.
Though this is a literary novel, Zhang’s choice not to anchor the narrative in specific dates and places creates a quality of a dreamy myth-telling, almost a fantasy fairy tale of two children lost in a strange and wild land. The reader gets lost along with the children amid the unknown and unknowable. We are both excited and disorientated by wandering. We see in the children their potential to be anything, but the real world drags them back through Lucy’s memories, history, and encounters with other people. Their potential, unfortunately, requires permission—from a teacher who only wants to study Lucy, from Lucy’s friend who only wants her to be a shadow, from those to whom Sam owes debts, and from men who see both Lucy and Sam as woman-like objects to possess.
In Part Two the narrative changes, telling the story of the family when it was whole. Though still told from Lucy’s point of view, the context shifts, as if memory was more concrete, more real than the present. While the family struggles for survival, the tension comes from the push and pull of the parents: Ba’s frustration with coal mine work and his desire to chase gold, shared by Sam, versus Ma’s fear of her husband’s obsession and her desire for Lucy to integrate into society through education. The two American myths, wealth and assimilation, tempt and frustrate them all, as the other (white) characters push them down. This gives context to, but doesn’t excuse, Ba’s abuse of Lucy. While Sam shared Ba’s enthusiasm for success despite the world conspiring against them, Lucy reminded him too much of Ma: her careful nature, her insistence that learning and knowledge would elevate them, her suspicion of gold as their savior.
In Part Three Ba himself takes over the narrative, talking to Lucy from beyond the grave. Here Ba literally haunts his children, trying to explain to them how they reached their current situations; but, of course, Lucy can’t hear him. The tone changes here, too. Gone is Ba’s rage and anger; instead, we perceive the loving but distant hindsight of the dead. Ba and Ma, we discover, underwent their own frustrations before the children were even born. Ba struggled to become someone of importance, falling prey to the promise of wealth and the self-loathing turned anger from that failure. Ma’s fears and anxieties were expressed in secrets and hidden motivations—kept even from, especially from, her own family. These chapters illustrate that Lucy and Sam misunderstood their parents’ intentions: in protecting them from the traumas they had suffered, their parents only projected their own angers and insecurities onto their children. Through these projections, like many Asian diaspora children, Lucy and Sam build up myths of family history, as opposed to individual idiosyncrasies, as a way of life.
Misunderstandings suffuse the narrative. Earlier in the book, Ma speaks Mandarin to the family at a key moment, but since Lucy (and Ba) can’t understand fully, the family reacts with inaction, colliding with disaster.
Ma blinks. “You didn’t—understand me? Wo de nu er. My own daughter and she can’t understand me.”
How many immigrant parents have expressed shock that their children don’t know or understand their language, heritage, or homeland? How many children of immigrants, growing up in America, have internalized shame at their parents’ disappointment—as if language, heritage, comes innate and is not taught. Neither Ma nor Lucy understand this rift, even as it changes their relationship in a profound but subtle way:
“It’s got its claws in you,” Ma says. Her fingers dig into Lucy’s hand. “This land’s claimed you and your sister both, shi ma?”
In Part Four, we jump a few years ahead, and the children have separated, giving them a much-needed period of time on their own to discover their identity. The narrative takes on a more concrete form, more physical and less mythic, but still layered in metaphor:
Lucy beats at herself, but it’s too late. Dirt and sweat mix into a muddy paste that clings to white fabric, dirtying her dress as, earlier, she imagined Anna’s dress dirties. She must look as filthy as the butcher’s boy.
Lucy has attempted to integrate into high society, befriending a (white) daughter of wealth, the true beneficiaries of gold prospecting. Sam has attempted to integrate into the Wild West—walking with a cowboy’s swagger, living by horse and gun, chasing after gold and fortune. Yet molding themselves into these identities hasn’t protected them or helped them achieve their goals. Sam’s adopted brashness hasn’t provided a home or fortune; Lucy’s attempts to rise up society’s ranks by following whiteness waylays her at every turn; both children still find the people of this land projecting their own biases upon them. They are not who they wish to be.
In a way, How Much of These Hills Is Gold is a story of generational trauma born of the difficulties of immigration to a land hostile to outsiders. In Ma’s eyes, California—America—has taken ownership of her own children. For a reader from an Asian diaspora, this could be interpreted as America stealing Lucy and Sam’s “Chinese-ness”—and indeed, due to their inability to understand her language, Ma ends up rejecting her family.
Ultimately, both parents take their fears and anxieties of being outsiders and inflict them on their children, ostensibly to teach them how to survive in the new land. Ba’s abuse hardens Lucy but also instills anger; Ma’s fear of gold permanently instills a fear of success in her. Ba’s insistence that gold can solve their problems infects Sam, until Sam falls into their father’s footsteps; his hurt and loathing of Ma also infects Sam, who projects that hurt onto Ma and the girl who resembles her, Lucy. The novel as a whole reflects how the immigrant generation’s fears can reverberate into the next.
In another way, How Much of These Hills Is Gold is a story about identity—not of the children’s “Chinese-ness,” but what it means to be Othered in America. The novel’s title asks the question: how much is gold, the pursuit of wealth, the American promise of belonging, a lie? Who are you if you are born in this land and speak its language, yet are given no opportunities to call it home? Even the epigraph, “This land is not your land,” both reminds us that America has stolen its territory from the Native Americans; but, in context of Lucy and Sam, it also serves as a warning that they will never belong.
For readers who understand some Mandarin, and who understand some of the history of Chinese immigration, the use of mixed language and the fluid historical placement disorientates and unsettles in an empathic way. (For example, the Mandarin has no tone markers and uses pinyin Romanization instead of Chinese characters, so the meaning has to be extracted through context, mirroring the experience of those who don’t have full fluency in their parents’ language.) The narrative feels incomplete, half-untold. What is left unsaid, whether in Mandarin or in the descriptions of time and place, speaks as loud as what is on the page. This mirrors Lucy and Sam’s experience, of piecing together meaning from scattered bits of words and memories.
At the end of the novel, a question to Lucy—“What does she want?”—remains hanging in the air just as the question of belonging hangs for the reader. The author doesn’t seem interested in answering the question for us, as the concept of identity can only be answered by each individual. Instead, the ambiguity forces us to realize that no one has ever previously asked Lucy what she wanted. (It is doubly ironic, then, that Lucy owes a massive debt to the asker.) We are left with a disturbing sense that Lucy will answer incorrectly, or that the events of the novel have beaten her down so much so that she no longer has any agency. Perhaps she and her sibling should have stayed wild, wandering in that mythic dream, lost in memory but free from the pressure to conform. How we walk away from the novel, either hopeful that Lucy has persevered or in despair over what she has lost, may inform us better about how we see the American dream.
 This uncertainty is surely deliberate: diaspora family histories can be lost due to time, lack of documentation, war, and personal omission from trauma. Zhang's story illustrates one way this information and connection is lost. Likewise, the children have no documentation or "proof" they belong and are thus routinely judged by appearance alone. (In modern times, they would have birthright citizenship, but in the late nineteenth century, American-born Chinese people faced the argument that they did not enjoy this right - an unfortunate mirror of today's political discourse. [return]