In Search of Home

In each of us reverberates a pang, a need for a home. However, home is not merely a physical manifestation which is why we embark on physical and emotional journeys to find the true sense and feeling of home. There is a reason why many say that home is a feeling. It is about the feeling of acceptance and of belongingness. There are, however, journeys that never come full circle. No matter how far these journeys go, the feeling and sense of home never seem to materialize. How far are we willing to go to find these feeling of home?

Budding writer C Pam Zhang grapples with this theme in her explosive and powerful debut novel, How Much of These Hills is Gold. Set in the twilight years of the American West Gold Rush, it related the story of sisters Lucy and Sam. The novel opened with the demise of their father, Ba. Their mother has previously abandoned them so at the age of twelve and eleven, respectively, they were practically orphaned. Despite their age, they were cognizant of the dangers of the world outside. However, they were dutybound to bury their father honorably.

With their dead father’s body in tow, Lucy and Sam set out for an adventure. Finding a proper burial place proved no walk in the park. It was the twilight years of the Californian gold rush. Ba was once a coal miner but later on turned into a gold prospector for it was a more lucrative prospect. The once prosperous goldmining towns are aging, but not with grace. Some are even inundated. Once teeming with activities, the arid lands now resonate with the cacophony of wild animal sounds. Will Lucy and Sam properly be able to bury their father? Will they be able to survive now that they must live on their own?

“And wasn’t that the real reason for traveling, a reason bigger than poorness and desperation and greed and fury—didn’t they know, low in their bones, that as long as they moved and the land unfurled, that as long as they searched, they would forever be searchers and never quite lost?”

~ C Pam Zhang, How Much of These Hills is Gold

How Much of These Hills is Gold, however, is not simply the story two young girls searching for a burial ground to honor their fallen father. It is guised as an adventure, a search for a sacrosanct piece of land but it would evolve into a deeper allegory. As the unfamiliar terrain exposes itself, Lucy and Sam would realize that the land never truly belonged to them. It was too foreign, too bereft of the domesticity that they were used while growing up. It is rife with uncertainty and dangers that they must overcome. What loomed is the realization that what they considered to be their home is not home after all.

In writing her debut novel, C Pam Zhang took elements and inspirations from her own life story. She was uprooted from her native Beijing at a young age, moving to the United States at just four years of age. Home, since then, has become a mere concept and has not come to account for anything. By the time she reached the age of eighteen, she has already moved to ten new homes. Before she turned thirty, she has lived in 14 different cities across four countries. However, home is still something she yearns for. In Lucy and Sam, she imbued her own story and her own voice.

C Pam Zhang writes beautifully about Lucy and Sam’s stormy relationship. Although they are sisters, a sea of differences set them adrift from each other. Lucy, who looks like their mother, has a longing for knowledge and schooling. She yearns to be a somebody someday. Grounded by reality, she dreams of stability, community, and anonymity. She helps their mother with the domestic chores. On the other hand, Sam, born Samantha, never saw the value of domesticity. She possesses a heart for adventure and is the antithesis of her sister. She helped Ba in the mine and never saw herself as a girl or a woman. The stark dichotomy of the sisters and their contrasting traits made up for a compelling story.

As the story of the sisters unfolded, another storyline started to surface. The story of Ba and Ma seamlessly weaves itself into the story of their children. Alternating between the past and the present, C Pam Zhang gloriously explores family dynamics and history. It is also an exploration of the quintessence of the American Dream. It was also the promises of this American Dream that Ba and Ma yearned for when they took part in the Gold Rush. They were reeled in by the promise of a grand future.

“She thinks of the other direction. The hills where she was born, and the sun that bleaches sky and brightens grass. She thinks about when she stood in a dead lake and held what men desired and died for. She thinks that was nothing, really, compared to the way the noonday sun makes the grass blaze. Horizon to horizon a shimmer. Who could truly grasp it, the huge and maddening glint, the ever-shifting mirage, the grass that refused to be owned or pinned but changed with every angle of light: what that land was, and to whom, death or life, good or bad, lucky or unlucky, countless lives birthed and destroyed by its terror and generosity.”

~ C Pam Zhang, How Much of These Hills is Gold

The promises of the American Dream are too good to be true but to truly attain that, one must work hard. Pursuing the American Dream, however, is doubly challenging for migrants like Ba and Ma. They had to deal with the foreignness of the land, but they also had to deal with the abuse, the exploitation, and the hostility thrown into them. For years, they rebuild their lives. They adjust and find the value and meaning of home and belongingness in a new and, often times, harsh environment. They ache for even just a semblance of home. There are, however, people like Ba and Ma who, no matter how hard they try to foster a sense home, they never truly obtain it.

Whilst the novel is marketed as a historical novel, the growth of the sisters transforms the narrative into a powerful Bildungsroman piece. With their glaring differences, Sam and Lucy’s paths diverged. As young adolescents, they struggle to uncover who they truly are for they had to contend with the weight of history, layers of secrets, and memories. They also had to do this in a country not their own, a land that is slowly becoming hostile. As their parents have learned before them, the path towards achieving the proverbial American Dream is rife with obstacles and barriers. In a foreign land, they would learn that even gender, sexuality, and race are stumbling blocks. They would learn that in order for them to survive, they must work their way in, despite the hostilities.

C Pam Zhang accentuated her debut novel with elements from her native China. Elements of cultural myth, folklore, tiger spirits, and buffalos gave the narrative a different luster, complexion. It reminded the readers about roots, migrants about home and where they came from, ordinary people about their heritage. These are indelible parts of us we bring wherever we go, and just like in the case of Ba and Ma, it ushers in vestiges of comfort in times of struggles. To conjure a semblance of home, we summon these intangible objects.

The cultural touchstones provided great building blocks for the story. Zhang also paints a very vivid picture of the setting. The towering hills, and the wildness of the land came alive with her masterful strokes. Her prose has a raw quality to it that is fascinating and refreshing to read. The nonlinear, nonformulaic quality of How Much of These Hills is Gold sets it apart from its contemporaries; t is as multifaceted as it is riveting. Zhang’s vibrant and rich prose wove all these wonderful elements together to concoct a highly imaginative but timely and seminal read that resonates in the contemporary.

“All your life you heard people say the story starts in ’48; and all your life when people told you this story, did you ever question why? They told it to shut you out. They told it to claim it; to make it theirs, not yours. They told it to say we came too late. Thieves they called us. They said this land could never be our land.”

~ C Pam Zhang, How Much of These Hills is Gold

In a record breaking year, How Much of These Hills is Gold was longlisted for the 2020 Man Booker Prize. It barely missed the mark, but it was, nonetheless, a fascinating debut. C Pam Zhang’s prose is simply exquisite and breathtaking. Her language, although seemingly foreign and inaccessible at first, developed into a mature, powerful, and insightful voice. Zhang evocatively wrote about a score of themes and subjects through the stories of Lucy and Sam – from the complexities of families, to the definitions of home, to the immigrant experience, to the hostilities of a new environment, to the meaning of identities and gender – whilst using elements of magical realism.

Zhang painted a vivid picture of the twilight years of the American Gold Rush in How Much of These Hills is Gold. However, the novel goes beyond the American Gold Rush; it carries with it a powerful voice that reverberates in the contemporary. It is, without a doubt, an impressionable read and an explosive debut.

Rating

87%

Characters (30%) – 24%
Plot (30%) – 27%
Writing (25%) – 23%
Overall Impact (15%) – 13%

Earlier this year, when I was looking for books to include in my 2020 Top 10 Books I Look Forward To List, one of the titles that kept on appearing in must-read lists is C Pam Zhang’s debut novel, How Much of These Hills is Gold. Naturally curious, I included it in my list and looked forward to reading it. My interest was further piqued when it was longlisted for the 2020 Man Booker Prize. Availing a copy of the book, however, was a challenge and it wasn’t until late in the year that I managed to buy my own copy. I really liked the book. The subtle incorporation of magical realist themes elevate the story that explores seminal and timely themes such as identity, sexuality, and the immigrant narrative. It was what I expected and more. I liked C Pam Zhang’s language and storytelling. It is nonlinear and yet it flowed. The accolades it has earned are well-deserved. I am looking forward to more of her works.

Book Specs

Author: C Pam Zhang
Publisher: Riverhead Books
Publishing Date: 2020
Number of Pages: 272
Genre: Historical, Coming-of-Age

Synopsis

Ba dies in the night, Ma is already gone. Newly orphaned, Lucy and Sam, ages twelve and eleven, are suddenly alone and on the run. With their father’s body on their backs, they roam on unforgiving landscape dotted with giant buffalo bones and tiger paw prints, searching for a place to give him a proper burial. Along the way, they battle their own secrets, the illusion of the American Dream, and each other.

Set against the twilight of the Gold Rush in a reimagined American West, How Much of These Hills is Gold is a sweeping adventure story, an unforgettable sibling story, and the announcement of a stunning new voice in literature. With fiercely original language and a story that is both epic and intimate, C Pam Zhang has written a remarkable novel about family, bound and divided by its memories.

About the Author

C Pam Zhang was born in 1990 in Beijing, China. When Zhang was four-years old, she moved to the United States. By the time she was eighteen, she has moved to ten new homes. She attended Brown University and has also studied at Cambridge University. In 2017, Zhang was the Truman Capote fellow at the Iowa Writer’s workshop.

In 2020, Zhang made her literary debut with the publication of How Much of These Hills is Gold. It was a critical success as it earned her a longlisting in the 2020 Man Booker Prize. She has been awarded support from Tin House, Bread Loaf, and Aspen Words.

Although still in search of home after living in thirteen cities across four countries, Zhang currently resides in San Francisco, California.