When something has been concealed from history, the excavator is tasked with a dual mission: the process of recovering what is lost and the act of imagining. Many social scientists dig into the first part with relish only to approach the second task with discomfort or a precision unsuited to the act of imagining. This is one reason that even the most revelatory of histories can fall flat. However, in the hands of an artist, the imagining can grow into something truly beautiful, it can take us to a world where we have never been before. Research and imagining are transcended and we enter the realm of mythmaking. This lofty realm is where the writer C Pam Zhang resides for much of her gorgeous debut novel How Much of These Hills Is Gold. She creates her own mythology as she weaves her tale, all while shedding light on a whitewashed portion of history.

This whitewashed history is that of the Asian immigrants who built so much of the American West, one that has been gifted to white cowboys and “pioneers” in the years since. And this history also places an unfair burden on Zhang, as readers and publishers and everyone who isn’t “other” from the straight, white, male norm (and some who are) expect education from writers who have a “different” story to tell. Marketing and interviews will either force a writer to be representative of an entire continent or gender or faith or they will fantasize about the writer’s motivation for not representing their background. I mention this because as readers and reviewers it can make us uncomfortable to be introduced to the “other” and discomfort can either lead to heaping praise on how “eye-opening” a book is or to criticizing it because it makes us feel uneducated.

So I want to openly say that this reviewer is woefully uneducated when it comes to Asian American history and culture, and I worry that with it comes the unfair subconscious expectation that a novel should educate me. But regardless of my own limitations, Zhang is up to something else here. She’s building a world, something that is its own while standing alongside those of Steinbeck and Ford, Eastwood and McMurtry, Leone and Proulx. It’s a vast and intriguing land to spend time in, and within it she tells a powerful, intimate story.

That story follows young, destitute siblings Lucy and Sam, who set out to bury their father, Ba, during a gold rush (or, perhaps, the Gold Rush – it’s purposefully left ambiguous) in the Old West. They are in search of two silver dollars to cover his eyes with, which seems simple enough but turns out to be anything but. Their mother has been dead for a few years, so Lucy and Sam are on their own, but Ba’s body is around to wreak havoc and serve as the siblings’ weighty albatross. The story is compelling, beautifully written and at times propulsively plotted, and through it Zhang examines a number of themes, from gender identity to sexuality to abuse to racism and beyond. But these themes are all true to the exciting story at the novel’s center, which twists and punches while crackling with literary language. She uses foreshadowing to build tension and uses creative and magical ways to bring Ba and Ma’s story into play.

The prose is a beguiling mixture of intricate and austere, using a feather-light touch to deliver forceful emotional blows. There’s a deceptive airiness to the action; characters glide and bluster, they wheedle and groan. Hills are emptied of noise, mules stumble in the night. Many interactions are marked by glances and glares, pinches and presses rather than exclamations or more overt violence. But howls do come, as does the violence, and it’s all the more effective given the quiet nature of other passages.

With her novel, Zhang takes a genre that has been stuck in its ways since the beginning, breaks it wide open and revels in it. There are shades of The Grapes of Wrath here, as well as Lonesome Dove and True Grit. These knowing homages make How Much of These Hills Is Gold all the more impressive, because Zhang is taking on the idols and ideals of the masculine western right in their own backyard. And she wins; there is more to be found in these Hills than those other works, and there is so much fun to be had in the finding.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Check Also

10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World: by Elif Shafak

Though she’s certainly well-regarded on these shores, your everyday reader may not know th…