How Much of These Hills Is Gold

Written by C. Pam Zhang
Review by Jo Ann Butler

Sam and Lucy are at one of life’s terrible crossroads: their father has just died, with their mother gone before. The orphans, age eleven and twelve, are left destitute in the rented chicken house-turned-home. Lacking a pair of silver dollars to close their Ba’s eyes and weigh down his spirit, Sam takes his pistol to the bank. They flee on a horse stolen by Lucy, hauling their father’s disintegrating body with them. Lucy had promised Ma to bury family members “at home,” but their parents were born in China. Where is home, and how shall the siblings survive?

C. Pam Zhang explores that, and much more in How Much of These Hills Is Gold. This fascinating historical novel is a fever-dream trek from one worked-out California gold field to another while Ms. Zhang deftly unspools the family’s past. At the same time, the author slowly unravels the tension between Lucy and Sam, who despite sporting a boy’s clothing and swagger, is revealed to be Lucy’s younger sister. Sam may be tough as rawhide, but her feral determination is matched by Lucy’s inner steel.

This book grabbed me on many levels – Ms. Zhang’s puzzle-box adventure and her jagged, yet lyrical prose, while Lucy and Sam’s trek struck bright echoes from my own travels in arid gold country. The love-anger relationship between sisters and parents will ring clearly with anyone who ever had a fraught relationship with a family member. I can’t recommend How Much of These Hills Is Gold more highly.