In her widely anticipated debut novel, Beijing-born, United States-based author C Pam Zhang has reinvented the Western genre – claiming it as a vehicle for Chinese-American history and identity. And what a ride it is: epic, relentless and written with elegant economy.
The book unfolds with a pair of siblings trying to bury their dead Ba. To do this, they need two silver dollars – what at first seems like an allusion to the payment for Charon the ferryman over the river Styx, but turns out to be an entirely new ritual in their chequered family history.
Eleven-year-old Sam strides into a bank, a force of nature in cowboy boots, and fires a pistol at the racist teller who calls them “chinks”. Elder by a year, Lucy is horrified at her younger sibling’s capacity for violence.
In that first act, a rift opens up between the orphaned siblings’ strategies for survival in the Wild West. Take-no-prisoners Sam is fearless and direct; Lucy, the smart one, relies on feminine wiles.
“The truth is Lucy didn’t know that day, watching Sam face the kids who taunted, if it was bravery that made Sam yell,” writes Zhang, in a flashback to the Chinese siblings’ first day of school.
“Was it braver to move loud or to stand quiet as Lucy did, letting spittle run down her lowered face?”
Reading these lines, one is reminded of how much this dilemma remains applicable to minorities in America, and the current maelstrom of police brutality and protests. The choice, and controversy, has always been defiance or assimilation. But the narrative also hints at a third option: solidarity.
The book ranges back and forth in time, just as Lucy and Sam make their way east over the tough terrain and back west again. Theirs is a reclaiming of history from the gold men who staked their ownership on the lands of California during the Gold Rush.
Nothing is clear-cut in Zhang’s crafting of the Old West: neither identity – the question “Where are you from?” for these two characters is not just simply over the ocean from China – nor gender.
Zhang’s writing has the precision of a surgeon. Sam sets out across a creek, “red shirt a shout against the barrenness”. A fat bully grabs Lucy by the throat “to milk her of words”.
If you have read Zhang’s 2017 short fiction piece online, Are They Vampires, Or Are They Just Chinese?, you will know how much imaginative ground she can cover in five paragraphs.
Language in this novel is contested territory too. Ma speaks a language that Ba and their children can only partially access.
Zhang herself uses hanyu pinyin without translation in the text, to create a hybrid English-Chinese syntax for the family’s dialogue. This reads awkwardly at times and is inaccessible to non-Mandarin speakers, but that is precisely the point. Each immigrant family creates a culture unto their own.
How Much Of These Hills is, at its heart, an action-filled tale with emotional depth. Zhang acknowledges Little House On The Prairie and Lonesome Dove, among others, as influences, but the novel’s literary ancestry is most evidently Toni Morrison’s Beloved (Lucy ends up in the town of Sweetwater, echoing Morrison’s Sweet Home).
Just as Morrison’s classic opened up a space to articulate the hurt and truths of America’s history of slavery, Zhang’s work rewrites the mythology of the American dream – with the addition of Chinese immigrant railroad workers and prospectors opening up the American West. Both novels give voice to long-forgotten ghosts. And about time, too.