A WASHINGTON POST NOTABLE BOOK OF THE YEAR
ONE OF BARACK OBAMA'S FAVORITE BOOKS OF THE YEAR
ONE OF NPR'S BEST BOOKS OF 2020
LONGLISTED FOR THE 2020 BOOKER PRIZE
FINALIST FOR THE 2020 CENTER FOR FICTION FIRST NOVEL PRIZE
WINNER OF THE ROSENTHAL FAMILY FOUNDATION AWARD, FROM THE AMERICAN ACADEMY OF ARTS AND LETTERS
A NATIONAL BOOK FOUNDATION "5 UNDER 35" HONOREE
“Belongs on a shelf all of its own.” —NPR
“Outstanding.” —The Washington Post
“Revolutionary . . . A visionary addition to American literature.” —Star Tribune
An electric debut novel set against the twilight of the American gold rush, two siblings are on the run in an unforgiving landscape—trying not just to survive but to find a home.
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 reimagined 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.
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Ba dies in the night, prompting them to seek two silver dollars.
Sam's tapping an angry beat come morning, but Lucy, before they go, feels a need to speak. Silence weighs harder on her, pushes till she gives way.
"Sorry," she says to Ba in his bed. The sheet that tucks him is the only clean stretch in this dim and dusty shack, every surface black with coal. Ba didn't heed the mess while living and in death his mean squint goes right past it. Past Lucy. Straight to Sam. Sam the favorite, round bundle of impatience circling the doorway in too-big boots. Sam clung to Ba's every word while living and now won't meet the man's gaze. That's when it hits Lucy: Ba really is gone.
She digs a bare toe into dirt floor, rooting for words to make Sam listen. To spread benediction over years of hurt. Dust hangs ghostly in the light from the lone window. No wind to stir it.
Something prods Lucy's spine.
"Pow," Sam says. Eleven to Lucy's twelve, wood to her water as Ma liked to say, Sam is nonetheless shorter by a full foot. Looks young, deceptively soft. "Too slow. You're dead." Sam cocks fingers back on pudgy fists and blows on the muzzle of an imagined gun. The way Ba used to. Proper way to do things, Ba said, and when Lucy said Teacher Leigh said these new guns didn't clog and didn't need blowing, Ba judged the proper way was to slap her. Stars burst behind her eyes, a flint of pain sharp in her nose.
Lucy's nose never did grow back straight. She thumbs it, thinking. Proper way, Ba said, was to let it heal itself. When he looked at Lucy's face after the bloom of bruise faded, he nodded right quick. Like he'd planned it all along. Proper that you should have something to rememory you for sassing.
There's dirt on Sam's brown face, sure, and gunpowder rubbed on to look (Sam thinks) like Indian war paint, but beneath it all, Sam's face is unblemished.
Just this once, because Ba's fists are helpless and stiff under the blanket-and maybe she is good, is smart, thinks in some small part that riling Ba might make him rise to swing at her-Lucy does what she never does. She cocks her hands, points her fingers. Prods Sam's chin where paint gives way to baby fat. The jaw another might call delicate, if not for Sam's way of jutting it.
"Pow yourself," Lucy says. She pushes Sam like an outlaw to the door.
Sun sucks them dry. Middle of the dry season, rain by now a distant memory. Their valley is bare dirt, halved by a wriggle of creek. On this side are the miners' flimsy shacks, on the other the moneyed buildings with proper walls, glass windows. And all around, circumscribing, the endless hills seared gold; and hidden within their tall, dry grasses, ragtag camps of prospectors and Indians, knots of vaqueros and travelers and outlaws, and the mine, and more mines, and beyond, and beyond.
Sam squares small shoulders and sets out across the creek, red shirt a shout against the barrenness.
When they first arrived there was still long yellow grass in this valley, and scrub oaks on the ridge, and poppies after rain. The flood three and a half years back rooted up those oaks, drowned or chased away half the people. Yet their family stayed, set alone at the valley's far edge. Ba like one of those lightning-split trees: dead down the center, roots still gripping on.
And now that Ba's gone?
Lucy fits her bare feet to Sam's prints and keeps quiet, saving spit. The water's long gone, the world after the flood left somehow thirstier.
And long gone, Ma.
Across the creek the main street stretches wide, shimmering and dusty as snakeskin. False fronts loom: saloon and blacksmith, trading post and bank and hotel. People lounge in the shadows like dragon lizards.
Jim sits in the general store, scritching in his ledger. It's wide as him and half as heavy. They say he keeps accounts of what's owed from every man in the territory.
"Excuse us," Lucy murmurs, weaving through the kids who loiter near the candy, eyes hungering for a solution to their boredom. "Sorry. Pardon me." She shrinks herself small. The kids part lazily, arms knocking her shoulders. At least today they don't reach out to pinch.
Jim's still fixed on his ledger.
Louder now: "Excuse me, sir?"
A dozen eyes prick Lucy, but still Jim ignores her. Knowing already that the idea's a bad one, Lucy edges her hand onto the counter to flag his attention.
Jim's eyes snap up. Red eyes, flesh raw at the rims. "Off," he says. His voice flicks, steel wire. His hands go on writing. "Washed that counter this morning."
Jagged laughter from behind. That doesn't bother Lucy, who after years lived in towns like this has no more tender parts to tear. What scoops her stomach hollow, the way it was when Ma died, is the look in Sam's eyes. Sam squints mean as Ba.
Ha! Lucy says because Sam won't. Ha! Ha! Her laughter shields them, makes them part of the pack.
"Only whole chickens today," Jim says. "No feet for you. Come back tomorrow."
"We don't need provisions," Lucy lies, already tasting the melt of chicken skin on her tongue. She forces herself taller, clenches hands at her sides. And she speaks her need.
I'll tell you the only magic words that matter, Ba said when he threw Ma's books in the storm-born lake. He slapped Lucy to stop her crying, but his hand was slow. Almost gentle. He squatted to watch Lucy wipe snot across her face. Ting wo, Lucy girl: On credit.
Ba's words work some sort of magic, sure enough. Jim pauses his pen.
"Say that again, girl?"
"Two silver dollars. On credit." Ba's voice booming at her back, in her ear. Lucy can smell his whiskey breath. Daren't turn. Should his shovel hands clap her shoulders, she doesn't know if she'll scream or laugh, run or hug him round the neck so hard she won't come loose no matter how he cusses. Ba's words tumble out the tunnel of her throat like a ghost clambering from the dark: "Payday's Monday. All we need's a little stretch. Honest."
She spits on her hand and extends it.
Jim's no doubt heard this refrain from miners, from their dry wives and hollow children. Poor like Lucy. Dirty like Lucy. Jim's been known to grunt, push the needed item over, and charge double interest come payday. Didn't he once give out bandages on credit after a mine accident? To people desperate like Lucy.
But none of them quite like Lucy. Jim's gaze measures her. Bare feet. Sweat-stained dress in ill-fitting navy, made from scraps of Ba's shirt fabric. Gangly arms, hair rough as chicken wire. And her face.
"Grain I'll give your pa on credit," Jim says. "And whatever animal parts you find fit to eat." His lip curls up, flashes a strip of wet gum. On someone else it might be called a smile. "For money, get him to the bank."
The spit dries tight on Lucy's untouched palm. "Sir-"
Louder than Lucy's fading voice, Sam's boot heel hits the floor. Sam marches, straight-shouldered, out of the store.
Small, Sam is. But capable of a man's strides in those calfskin boots. Sam's shadow licks back at Lucy's toes; in Sam's mind the shadow is the true height, the body a temporary inconvenience. When I'm a cowboy, Sam says. When I'm an adventurer. More recently: When I'm a famous outlaw. When I'm grown. Young enough to think desire alone shapes the world.
"Bank won't help the likes of us," Lucy says.
She might as well have said nothing. Dust tickles her nose and she stops to cough. Her throat ripples. She retches last night's dinner into the street.
Straightaway come the strays, licking at her leavings. For a moment Lucy hesitates, though Sam's boots beat an impatient tattoo. She imagines abandoning her lone relation to crouch among the dogs, fight them for every drop that's hers. Theirs is a life of belly and legs, run and feed. Simple life.
She makes herself straighten and walk two-legged.
"Ready, pardner?" Sam says. This one's a real question, not a chewed-out spit-up line. For the first time today Sam's dark eyes aren't squinted. Under protection of Lucy's shadow, they've opened wide, something there half-melting. Lucy moves to touch that short black hair where the red bandana's come askew. Remembering the smell of Sam's baby scalp: yeasty, honest with oil and sun.
But by moving she lets sun hit. Sam's eyes squeeze shut. Sam steps away. Lucy can tell from the bulge of Sam's pockets that those hands are cocked again.
"I'm ready," Lucy says.
The floor of the bank is gleaming board. Blond as the hair on the lady teller's head. So smooth no splinters catch Lucy's feet. The tap of Sam's boots acquires a raw edge, like gunshot. Sam's neck reddens under the war paint.
Ta-tap, they go across the bank. The teller staring.
Ta-TAP. The teller leans back. A man appears from behind her. A chain swings from his vest.
TA-TAP TA-TAP TA-TAP. Sam stretches up to the counter on tiptoe, creasing boot leather. Sam's always stepped so careful before.
"Two silver dollars," Sam says.
The teller's mouth twitches. "Do you have an-"
"They don't have an account." It's the man who speaks, looking at Sam as one might a rat.
Sam gone quiet.
"On credit," Lucy says. "Please."
"I've seen you two around. Did your father send you to beg?"
In a way, he did.
"Payday's Monday. We only need a little stretch." Lucy doesn't say, Honest. Doesn't think this man would hear it.
"This isn't a charity. Run on home, you little-" The man's lips keep moving for a moment after his voice has stopped, like the woman Lucy once saw speaking in tongues, a force other than her own pushing between her lips. "-beggars. Run on before I call the sheriff."
Terror walks cold fingers down Lucy's spine. Not fear of the banker. Fear of Sam. She recognizes the look in Sam's eyes. Thinks of Ba stiff in the bed, eyes slitted open. She was the first to wake this morning. She found the body and sat vigil those hours before Sam woke, and she closed the eyes as best she could. She figured Ba died angry. Now she knows different: his was the measuring squint of a hunter tracking prey. Already she sees the signs of possession. Ba's squint in Sam's eyes. Ba's anger in Sam's body. And that's besides the other holds Ba has on Sam: the boots, the place on Sam's shoulder where Ba rested his hand. Lucy sees how it'll go. Ba will rot day by day in that bed, his spirit spilling from his body and moving into Sam till Lucy wakes to see Ba looking out from behind Sam's eyes. Sam lost forever.
They need to bury Ba once and for all, lock his eyes with the weight of silver. Lucy must make this banker understand. She readies herself to beg.
Sam says, "Pow."
Lucy is about to tell Sam to quit fooling. She reaches for those chubby brown fingers, but they've gone curiously shiny. Black. Sam is holding Ba's pistol.
The teller falls in a faint.
"Two silver dollars," Sam says, voice pitched lower. A shadow of Ba's voice.
"I'm so sorry, sir," Lucy says. Her lips go up. Ha! Ha! "You know how kids are with their games, please excuse my little-"
"Run on before I have you lynched," the man says. Looking straight at Sam. "Run on, you filthy. Little. Chink."
Sam squeezes the trigger.
A roar. A bang. A rush. The sense of something enormous passing Lucy's ear. Stroking her with rough palms. When she opens her eyes the air is gray with smoke and Sam has staggered back, hand clapped to a cheek bruised by the pistol's recoil. The man lies on the ground. For once in her life Lucy resists the tears on Sam's face, puts Sam second. She crawls away from Sam. Ears ringing. Her fingers find the man's ankle. His thigh. His chest. His whole, unblemished, beating chest. There's a welt on his temple from where he leapt back and banged his head on a shelf. Apart from that the man is unharmed. The gun misfired.
From the cloud of smoke and powder, Lucy hears Ba laughing.
"Sam." She resists the urge to cry too. Needing to be stronger than herself, now. "Sam, you idiot, bao bei, you little shit." Mixing the sweet and the sour, the caress and the cuss. Like Ba. "We gotta go."
What could almost make a girl laugh is how Ba came to these hills to be a prospector. Like thousands of others he thought the yellow grass of this land, its coin-bright gleam in the sun, promised even brighter rewards. But none of those who came to dig the West reckoned on the land's parched thirst, on how it drank their sweat and strength. None of them reckoned on its stinginess. Most came too late. The riches had been dug up, dried out. The streams bore no gold. The soil bore no crops. Instead they found a far duller prize locked within the hills: coal. A man couldn't grow rich on coal, or use it to feed his eyes and imagination. Though it could feed his family, in a way, weeviled meal and scraps of meat, until his wife, wearied out by dreaming, died delivering a son. Then the cost of her feed could be diverted into a man's drink. Months of hope and savings amounting to this: a bottle of whiskey, two graves dug where they wouldn't be found. What could almost make a girl laugh-ha! ha!-is that Ba brought them here to strike it rich and now they'd kill for two silver dollars.
So they steal. Take what they need to flee town. Sam resists at first, stubborn as ever.
"We didn't hurt nobody," Sam insists.
Didn't you mean to, though? Lucy thinks. She says, "They'll make anything a crime for the likes of us. Make it law if they have to. Don't you remember?"
Sam's chin lifts, but Lucy sees Sam hesitate. On this cloudless day they both feel the lash of rain. Remembering when storm howled inside and even Ba could do nothing.
"We can't wait around," Lucy says. "Not even to bury."
Finally, Sam nods.
Reading Group Guide
1. In How Much of These Hills is Gold, Pam Zhang crafts a reimagined American West, filled with magic and myth, at the height of the Gold Rush. The epigraph reads: “This land is not your land” but within Chapter One, Lucy recalls Ba’s words: “You remember you belong to this place as much as anybody.” (24). What do you think the novel is saying about birthrights? Are they inherited or claimed?
2. Much is made about the burial process—for loved ones; for things and animals; for past selves. Is there a right way to honor the dead as seen in the novel? What does Sam’s decision to take the two silver dollars from Ba’s burial tell us about their relationship?
3. Ba and Sam are prone to fanciful storytelling. Consider the many stories told within the novel, as well as the tellers. What are the differences between the stories that the characters tell one another and the stories they tell themselves? To what extent is myth involved in the creation of each character’s origin story?
4. Bodies, like the land, are often claimed. At the end of Part Two, Sam is “born” as Ma “dies.” Dissect the ways in which, Lucy, Sam, and Ma adhere to or subvert gender norms throughout the novel.
5. Compare and contrast the various teachers in the novel, their specific motivations, and their successes. Billy to Ba; Teacher Leigh to Lucy; Ba to Ma. etc.,—what kind of education does each receive? What are the power dynamics in evidence between teacher and student?
6. Ba helps Sam become the boy he always wanted to be, meanwhile Lucy and Ma are thick as thieves. Discuss the differing family dynamics. Why does Ba choose to tell Sam Ma’s secret, but not Lucy? Why doesn’t Ma seek out Lucy after she’s disappeared if they’re so close? In what ways do Sam and Lucy exemplify characteristics of each of their parents?
7. In Part Three, Ba speaks through the voice of the wind and hopes that Lucy hears it in the night. How does the revelation of Ba’s true origin affect your reading of him throughout the book? Did learning his side of the story change your perspective about his behavior and motivations?
8. The novel places a large significance on gold and Ba’s belief that prospecting is a talent. The other mountain folk, however, think striking gold has all to do with chance. In what ways does the novel interrogate these ideas? What other factors are at play in one’s ability to strike gold?
9. The environment is as much a character as Lucy and Sam’s family and is often anthropomorphized. Analyze the relationship between the characters and the natural world, as well as animals, both real and imagined. Why do you think the author chose to name the chapters after recurring natural elements?
10. When we encounter Lucy and Sam in Part Four, Lucy has chosen to settle in the town of Sweetwater, and Sam chooses life on the trail. Consider the dichotomy and tension between civilization and wilderness in the novel. Are there elements of each in the other?
11. Throughout the novel, Lucy often asks “What makes a home a home?” Does she ever find a sufficient answer to that question? Consider Ma’s homeland across the sea, the family’s home in town, Lucy’s place in Sweetwater. Are there degrees to what can make a “home”?
12. What do you think Lucy asks the gold man for at the conclusion of the novel? Why do you think the author chose not to name it?