Where do I come from is a deceiving question. It seems like there should be a straight-forward answer. For the siblings in C Pam Zhang‘s How Much of These Hills Is Gold, a question like where do I come from is fraught.
As the character’s stories play out we learn more of their past and what life was like when Ma and Ba (their parents) were younger. Though of Chinese descent, the children lose the history of themselves when they lose their Ma. They know their eyes are different, their skin is darker. Sometimes, they’re mistaken for Native Americans. Yet, the West has wholly claimed them. Sam and Lucy are connected to the hills, to the scrub grass, the land itself. Part of this is Ba’s influence and part of it is their childhood spent traveling the West. Even though they were born in the United States, Sam and Lucy are seen as other. They understand that the laws are meant to take from people who aren’t white. What is their role in this landscape with rules they did not make?
Identity is further complicated through gender as well. Sam, takes on a male identity early on in the novel. Boys are paid more than girls in the mining camp for doing the same work. Is it just to earn more money that Samantha becomes Sam? Both children have a complicated relationship with their father, but he seems to embrace the idea of Sam being his son and it brings them closer together. Throughout her life, Sam bucks the rules of society. She embraces her identity and will not be hemmed in. But the cost of that lifestyle is high and it’s not her’s alone to pay.
It’s heartbreaking to read the cruelty and racism the family faces in How Much of These Hills Is Gold. Not only do Ma, Ba, Sam and Lucy face everyday cruelties at the hands of white people, they are also paid less, forced to live in an old chicken coop instead of a normal house like the rest of the miners, and have their possessions stolen. There is no recourse. The laws are written by whites. What can the family do but endure and move on? Or is there an option to return? To cross the ocean again?
A Place in the West
In an interview, I read Zhang talked about wanting to see herself reflected in stories of the West. Asian characters are often on the periphery. Where were the stories that revolved around a Chinese immigrant? What do those stories look like? Zhang set out to explore that topic and creates a world full of desperation, toil, and at times, surreal beauty.
There are times when the novel feels disjointed. Ba’s voice floats from the hill. It fills backstory, but it takes a leap of faith. And when Lucy settles in Sweetwater, the comparison of her to a rich prospector’s daughter is a bit too heavy-handed. We get it, that could be her if her family was white. A more deft writer would have applied subtlety to that section of the novel.
How Much of These Hills Is Gold offers a unique perspective with harrowing moments of survival. The writing evokes the majesty of the hills and plains with a few stumbles along the way. I enjoyed it, but it took me a while to get into the book and stay with it.