Rating: 5/5 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟
How Much of these Hills is Gold is, without a doubt, my favorite book of 2020, and quite frankly, one of my favorite books ever. Combing history with myth, culture and , Pam Zhang seamlessly weaves through time and space, crafting an unforgettable and breathtaking story of Chinese immigrants during the gold rush.
Hills starts off with a quest – “Ba dies in the night, prompting them to seek two silver dollars.” One of my favorite things about this book is the character-driven plot. The urgency seems be derived from the characters instead of outside happenings. First, Sam and Lucy needs to find two silver dollars. Then, they need to find a “home” to bury Ba’s body. Next, Sam needs to find the buffalos, etc. etc. The book, albeit existing between a mist of history and myth, doesn’t lose sight of its main focus: the children of the Chinese immigrants, trying to find their home now that both their parents are gone.
Part two of the book flows back in time, and details Lucy’s memories of Ma, when she was still alive. Despite it being a flashback/memory, this part still manages to have urgency created through the character’s desires: Ba has been prospecting and has found gold; Ma wants to use this gold to bring the family back to China. The dramatic irony in this section is devastating, bringing tears to my eyes more that I’d like to admit. We keep reading not to find out what happened, because we already know, but how and why.
The most gorgeous section of the book, in my opinion, is Part Three: Wind Wind Wind Wind Wind. In this part, Ba becomes the wind that whispers into Lucy’s ear, that tells Lucy the story of himself and Ma. (Spoilers ahead!)
The mystery of where Ba buried Ma is revealed to Lucy (for Ba had told Sam): That Ma didn’t die. That when Ba left to bury their stillborn brother, Ma had already left. Ba tells Lucy that sometimes “knowing is worse than not knowing”, and that he didn’t tell her the truth because it was the kind thing to do. In this chapter, Ba and Ma both develop into even more complicated and nuanced characters than before — Ba gets a redemptive arc, and Ma is similarly condemned.
I think this section is where C Pam Zhang’s writing shines the brightest, as expemplified by this stunning paragraph:
“I forgot plenty of things in my life: Billy’s face, the color of poppies, how to sleep gentle so that I didn’t wake up with fists clenched and an ache already started in my shoulder, the word for the smell of earth after rain, the taste of clean water. And there’s other things I’m forgetting in death: how it felt to swing my fist and feel the knuckles crack, how mud squelched between my toes, how it was to have fingers and toes and hunger. I expect there’ll come a day when I forget everything of myself, after you and Sam bury me—not just my body but what little of me is in your blood and speech. But. Even if there comes a day when I’m no more than a wind roaming these hills, then I expect that wind will still remember one thing and whisper it to every blade of grass: the way I felt when your ma looked only at me. So bright a lesser man might fear it.”
The last section took me by surprise. Zhang is a master of urgency in any point of time, and the children grown-up was no exception. I had no idea where the story was going, and the ending, although a shock at the time, now seems inevitable.
One thing I absolutely loved about Zhang’s writing is her ability to build off of previously established motifs. She calls back to these images and questions (the plum, the tiger skull, What makes a home a home?) and suggests possible answers instead of giving them, because she knows that there is no definite answer, like there is no factual history. The history that we’ve learned have been stripped of context, presented in a way that suits the presenter. Zhang tries to simultaneously to excavate and imagine the stories of Chinese immigrants during the gold rush, and, like layers upon layers of hills, asks again and again the questions that don’t have simple answers.
This land is not your land, Zhang writes at the beginning of Hills. America, the land of the great, the land of the free, built its ideal on their acceptance of immigrants, just to show how self-contradicting a nation can be. Throughout history, marginalized groups have found themselves without a voice, without a space to call home. By imaging this beautiful story, Zhang has attempted to, if not claim a land, let this land and its rolling hills, claim her.