Monday, June 15, 2020

How Much of These Hills is Gold - C Pam Zhang

Summary: Ba dies in the night; Ma is already gone. Newly orphaned children of immigrants, Lucy and Sam are suddenly alone in a land that refutes their existence. Fleeing the threats of their western mining town, they set off to bury their father in the only way that will set them free from their past. Along the way, they encounter giant buffalo bones, tiger paw prints, and the specters of a ravaged landscape as well as family secrets, sibling rivalry, and glimpses of a different kind of future.

Both epic and intimate, blending Chinese symbolism and re-imagined history with fiercely original language and storytelling, How Much of These Hills Is Gold is a haunting adventure story, an unforgettable sibling story, and the announcement of a stunning new voice in literature. On a broad level, it explores race in an expanding country and the question of where immigrants are allowed to belong. But page by page, it's about the memories that bind and divide families, and the yearning for home. (Summary and pic from

My Review:  Because I read a lot, I don’t remember very specific details about a book unless I’ve read it fairly recently or there’s something really remarkable about it. Many books are somewhat forgettable to me as the years go by, which is why I love Goodreads and being able to look back at my reviews to see what I thought and why. Every once in awhile, a book will come along that is so different that I have distinct impressions and memories about it looking back, even several years down the road. I believe this is one of those books for several reasons.

When I think of this book, it is almost completely atmospheric. It takes place in a modified, somewhat magical or alt-version of gold rush. The cover of the copy I had was quite gold and orange. It takes place right after the gold rush (so that by this time most people were mining instead of panning for gold). The weather in the story is hot and dusty. As such, this book has a general overall impression of gold. It’s interesting. When I see a mental picture of the story, it takes place in sepia tone. I’m not sure what the author actually did in order to create this vision, and maybe I was just hallucinating, but it was very effective in creating a very specific atmosphere. The sepia-tinged gold feeling of the story contributed to the sparseness and otherworldly-ness of a well-known time period.

This book is written in a somewhat sparse manner. Not a lot of said, but a lot is implied and a lot is told. Zhang packs a punch in her writing. She picks interesting words and her characters think in interesting ways. I enjoyed seeing their perspective, and as they were Asian in an obviously predominantly white time and place of history, I really found it to be timely. Having different perspectives on historical happenings is a great way to not only learn the reality of what was happening (because reality can never really be found in only one perspective), but to also see what it would have been like for people who were not from the predominant race. It was very interesting reading about their reactions, but also the difficulties they faced and the hopes and dreams they had.

Here is my main complaint about the book—Zhang doesn’t tell the ending. Not just the ending ending (although she doesn’t tell the ending), but really the ending of everything. We are left literally hanging in almost every circumstance. What really happened? What was really said? What was really meant? Gah! As a person who likes to have things cut and dry and spelled out, this was very difficult. I’d be reading along, minding my own business, and then BAM! The situation would be over and the resolution would not be told (or even inferred). It was maddening. Perhaps someone with more imagination and less need to have thing spelled out would have loved it. For me, it was frustrating. It didn’t ruin the book, per se, but not ever knowing anything and having very little resolution is not my fave thing ever.

The story itself was pretty good and pretty interesting. I enjoyed the last 1/3 of the book the most. Because of the general sepia-toned non-knowing-of-the-ended-ness, the beginning was a little more confusing than the end. Also, the two main characters are wandering around and so it wasn’t as action-packed and interesting as the end of the book. By the end of the book, the characters had grown a little older and seen a little more life and so had become a lot more interesting. I actually wish there was more of the book dedicated to them when they were a little older.

Despite how short this book is, it certainly made an impression on me. Zhang creates very specific and carefully tailored story and atmosphere that is almost palpable, and an interesting take on an alt-reality of the gold rush told through the eyes of some unlikely and very interesting characters. It was an interesting read and one I’d recommend, especially to more advanced readers who appreciate authors who can work their magic.

My Rating: 3.5 Stars

For the sensitive reader: There is some language and reference to sex, but nothing explicit.

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