By Emma K Wang
“What makes a home a home?”
Released during the very beginning of quarantine, C Pam Zhang’s debut novel “How Much of These Hills Is Gold” revisits the landscape of great American “Western literature” while exploring the Gold Rush through the previously unexplored lens of Chinese immigrants. Intertwining traditional Chinese folklore with historical context, Zhang raises questions of belonging, home, sexuality and more. Months after its publication, “Hills” became longlisted for the Booker Prize, and Zhang was subsequently nominated for the National Book Foundation’s “5 under 35.”
“Hills” starts off with a quest: Sam and Lucy’s father, Ba, has died, and now they need to seek two silver dollars for a proper burial. Told as a constant back and forth between present and past and between action and memory, Lucy and Sam heave Ba’s dead body across a stolen horse in order to find a home for the body to lie in. For most of the first section (the book is divided into four), the two siblings traverse the rolling hills, remembering stories of buffalos and tigers, of burials and recipes and eventually finding a place to bury Ba’s body.
In the beginning of the book, Lucy and Sam each seem to have a parent whose personality they mirror. Lucy is Ma, with her beautiful face and persuasive voice; Sam is Ba, with his clenched fists and hard tone. Zhang develops all her characters with both grace and harshness, exemplified through Lucy’s belief that “what makes Ma most beautiful is the contradiction of her.”
A blend of history and myth, the language of “Hills” is poetic without becoming pure poetry. Zhang’s words flow and blend into each other, becoming almost a stylistic microcosm of the rolling and tumbling hills.
Though set in a historical time period, Zhang undermines the idea that history is purely factual. Through telling the stories of Chinese immigrants, Zhang creates space in a period that is conceived of as dominated by the white male gold digger — because of course white people weren’t the only people living on the West Coast during the Gold Rush, and of course there were Native Americans and Chinese and all different kinds of immigrants. This presumption of white-washed history is personified in the teacher Leigh, who promises to teach Lucy in exchange for Lucy’s stories about where she comes from, who calls Lucy “savage,” who calls her mother a different breed. Zhang calls into question history as objective; rather, she presents history as a series of what we chose to exemplify and what we chose to leave out.
The question that eventually looms over the entire book starts out small: The question Ba asks Lucy, “What makes a dog a dog,” becomes an inside joke for the siblings, digressing into “What makes a bed a bed,” “What makes a boat a boat” and eventually, “What makes a home a home?” Zhang doesn’t give us a straightforward answer. Instead, she gives us multiple: Tigers mark the home for Ma, while Ba belongs to the wind and buffalos; Lucy is somewhere in the middle, unsure of whether she can claim a land or let the land claim her. These potential answers become motifs that are revisited throughout the novel, repeating and rolling like the hills Lucy and Sam seek to navigate. Even though we don’t get a definite answer to these questions, there is a familiar longing for a land to return to, for a home that is beyond description.
“This land is not your land,” Zhang writes at the beginning of “Hills.” America, with its ideal of freedom, exercises this very freedom with the continual subjugation of disadvantaged groups. Throughout history, marginalized groups have found themselves without a voice, without a space to call home. By imagining this beautiful story, Zhang has given us a story that prompts us to ask these difficult questions and to seek spaces for ourselves. As Lucy in the final scene of the novel, “She opens her mouth. She wants.”