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How Much of These Hills Is Gold

A Novel

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Paperback
$18.00 US
| $24.95 CAN
On sale Apr 06, 2021 | 336 Pages | 9780525537212
| Grades 9-12 + AP/IB
NEW YORK TIMES  NOTABLE BOOK OF THE YEAR

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

NATIONAL BESTSELLER

“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.

Gold

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.

Praise for How Much of These Hills Is Gold

“Arresting, beautiful.” —The New York Times 

“An aching book, full of myths of Zhang’s making (including tigers that roam the Western hills) as well as joys, as well as sorrows. It’s violent and surprising and musical. Like Lucy and Sam, the novel wanders down byways and takes detours and chances. By journey’s end, you’re enriched and enlightened by the lives you have witnessed.” —The New York Times
 
“[A] glittering debut . . . This novel is at once a thrilling adventure, a tender coming-of-age story, an excavation of the corrosive mythmaking surrounding the American west, and the arrival of a major literary talent.” —Esquire

“While the book presents a counter-narrative to conventional tales of America’s origins, it also interrogates the more intimate dimensions of belonging and memory, asking, over and over, ‘What makes a home a home?’” —The New Yorker

“Sure to be the boldest debut of the year.” —The Guardian

“A fully immersive epic drama packed with narrative riches and exquisitely crafted prose . . . Zhang captures not only the mesmeric beauty and storied history of America’s sacred landscape, but also the harsh sacrifices countless people were forced to make in hopes of laying claim to its bounty.” —San Francisco Chronicle

“Outstanding . . . Zhang does more than just push against the cowboy narrative: She shoves it clear out of the way. . . . at once subversive and searching”—The Washington Post

"C Pam Zhang’s stunning debut novel wends forward and backward in time, asking in stark terms what it takes to claim a piece of the American dream."

“Just as Zhang tinkers with Western tropes, she also plays with language, weaving Chinese phrases with cowboy drawl, merging myths of tigers with fables about where the buffalo roam. Her prose at its best can be heart-stoppingly lyrical.” —USA Today

How Much of These Hills Is Gold is first and foremost a family story, a gorgeous novel that gives its characters room to learn, mourn, fight, and reinvent themselves. But it also reveals the flaws and false revisions in the American mythos, the ways we have never fully overcome the brutalities on which this country was built, and how much was lost, destroyed, and stolen in the pursuit of profit along the way.” —Chicago Review of Books
 
“Imaginative, vital . . . Zhang’s searing words pierce the heart of America’s founding mythology, laying bare its lies, and offering up a new, much-needed vision of this country and its people.” —Refinery29

“As she depicts their journey, Zhang prompts the reader to think about whose stories are told from this period of American history—fictional or not—and adds her urgent voice to the genre.” —Time

“A world wrought of breath and blood and imagination.” —Lit Hub

“Stunning . . . a long-overdue treatment of the American West.” —Outside

“Lyrical and mythic, How Much of These Hills Is Gold reconceives the immigrant narrative to tell an original story of racism and American greed.” —The A.V. Club

“C Pam Zhang’s electrifying debut is a sweeping work of historical fiction—the sort of masterpiece that immediately establishes an author as a force to be reckoned with.” —Harper’s Bazaar

“This moving tale of family, gold, and freedom rings with a truth that defies rosy preconceptions. The description of human and environmental degradation is balanced by shining characters who persevere greatly. Highly recommended.” —Library Journal (starred review)

“[An] extraordinary debut . . . Gorgeously written and fearlessly imagined, Zhang’s awe-inspiring novel introduces two indelible characters whose odyssey is as good as the gold they seek.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Aesthetically arresting and a vital contribution to America’s conversation about itself.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Daringly original . . . Zhang’s laser-sharp reexamination of America’s myth-laden past is likely to help bring clarity to many issues that continue to challenge us all.” —BookPage (starred review)

“Smart, beautiful, and intimate.” —The Millions

“Ferocious, dark and gleaming, a book erupting out of the interstices between myth and dream, between longing and belonging. How Much of These Hills Is Gold tells us that stories—like people, like the rough and stunning landscape of California itself—are constantly in the process of being made, broken, and finally remade into something tender and new.” —Lauren Groff, The New York Times–bestselling author of Fates and Furies
 
“A haunting, riveting and truly remarkable debut. Zhang writes with the clear-eyed lucidity of ancient mythmakers whose eyes are attuned to the vicissitudes of nature and humanity.” —Chigozie Obioma, author of Booker Prize finalist An Orchestra of Minorities

“This exhilarating novel unweaves the myths of the American West and offers in their place a gorgeous, broken, soulful, feral song of family and yearning, origin and earth. C Pam Zhang is a brilliant, fearless writer. This book is a wonder.” —Garth Greenwell, author of What Belongs to You
 
“A truly gifted writer.” —Sebastian Barry, author of The Secret Scripture
 
“A ravishingly written revisionist story of the making of the West, C Pam Zhang’s debut is pure gold.” Emma Donoghue, author of Room
 
How Much of These Hills is a miracle, as timely as it is timeless, propulsive but also wonderfully meditative, a ferocious, tender epic about a vulnerable immigrant family trying to survive the American Gold Rush. I read it in one night and know I’ll revisit it soon: I envy you your first read of this book.” R.O. Kwon, author of The Incendiaries

“The writing here is intuitive, chewy, wonderful; the plot is devastating and the talent is dazzling. Zhang is a blazing writer.” Daisy Johnson, author of Everything Under
© Clayton Cubitt
Born in Beijing, C Pam Zhang is mostly an artifact of the United States. She is the author of How Much of These Hills Is Gold, winner of the Academy of Arts and Letters Rosenthal Award and the Asian/Pacific Award for Literature; longlisted for the Booker Prize; and a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award and a Lambda Literary Award. Zhang’s writing appears in Best American Short Stories, The Cut, McSweeney’s Quarterly, The New Yorker, and The New York Times. She is a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 Honoree. View titles by C Pam Zhang

About

NEW YORK TIMES  NOTABLE BOOK OF THE YEAR

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

NATIONAL BESTSELLER

“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.

Excerpt

Gold

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.

Reviews

Praise for How Much of These Hills Is Gold

“Arresting, beautiful.” —The New York Times 

“An aching book, full of myths of Zhang’s making (including tigers that roam the Western hills) as well as joys, as well as sorrows. It’s violent and surprising and musical. Like Lucy and Sam, the novel wanders down byways and takes detours and chances. By journey’s end, you’re enriched and enlightened by the lives you have witnessed.” —The New York Times
 
“[A] glittering debut . . . This novel is at once a thrilling adventure, a tender coming-of-age story, an excavation of the corrosive mythmaking surrounding the American west, and the arrival of a major literary talent.” —Esquire

“While the book presents a counter-narrative to conventional tales of America’s origins, it also interrogates the more intimate dimensions of belonging and memory, asking, over and over, ‘What makes a home a home?’” —The New Yorker

“Sure to be the boldest debut of the year.” —The Guardian

“A fully immersive epic drama packed with narrative riches and exquisitely crafted prose . . . Zhang captures not only the mesmeric beauty and storied history of America’s sacred landscape, but also the harsh sacrifices countless people were forced to make in hopes of laying claim to its bounty.” —San Francisco Chronicle

“Outstanding . . . Zhang does more than just push against the cowboy narrative: She shoves it clear out of the way. . . . at once subversive and searching”—The Washington Post

"C Pam Zhang’s stunning debut novel wends forward and backward in time, asking in stark terms what it takes to claim a piece of the American dream."

“Just as Zhang tinkers with Western tropes, she also plays with language, weaving Chinese phrases with cowboy drawl, merging myths of tigers with fables about where the buffalo roam. Her prose at its best can be heart-stoppingly lyrical.” —USA Today

How Much of These Hills Is Gold is first and foremost a family story, a gorgeous novel that gives its characters room to learn, mourn, fight, and reinvent themselves. But it also reveals the flaws and false revisions in the American mythos, the ways we have never fully overcome the brutalities on which this country was built, and how much was lost, destroyed, and stolen in the pursuit of profit along the way.” —Chicago Review of Books
 
“Imaginative, vital . . . Zhang’s searing words pierce the heart of America’s founding mythology, laying bare its lies, and offering up a new, much-needed vision of this country and its people.” —Refinery29

“As she depicts their journey, Zhang prompts the reader to think about whose stories are told from this period of American history—fictional or not—and adds her urgent voice to the genre.” —Time

“A world wrought of breath and blood and imagination.” —Lit Hub

“Stunning . . . a long-overdue treatment of the American West.” —Outside

“Lyrical and mythic, How Much of These Hills Is Gold reconceives the immigrant narrative to tell an original story of racism and American greed.” —The A.V. Club

“C Pam Zhang’s electrifying debut is a sweeping work of historical fiction—the sort of masterpiece that immediately establishes an author as a force to be reckoned with.” —Harper’s Bazaar

“This moving tale of family, gold, and freedom rings with a truth that defies rosy preconceptions. The description of human and environmental degradation is balanced by shining characters who persevere greatly. Highly recommended.” —Library Journal (starred review)

“[An] extraordinary debut . . . Gorgeously written and fearlessly imagined, Zhang’s awe-inspiring novel introduces two indelible characters whose odyssey is as good as the gold they seek.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Aesthetically arresting and a vital contribution to America’s conversation about itself.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Daringly original . . . Zhang’s laser-sharp reexamination of America’s myth-laden past is likely to help bring clarity to many issues that continue to challenge us all.” —BookPage (starred review)

“Smart, beautiful, and intimate.” —The Millions

“Ferocious, dark and gleaming, a book erupting out of the interstices between myth and dream, between longing and belonging. How Much of These Hills Is Gold tells us that stories—like people, like the rough and stunning landscape of California itself—are constantly in the process of being made, broken, and finally remade into something tender and new.” —Lauren Groff, The New York Times–bestselling author of Fates and Furies
 
“A haunting, riveting and truly remarkable debut. Zhang writes with the clear-eyed lucidity of ancient mythmakers whose eyes are attuned to the vicissitudes of nature and humanity.” —Chigozie Obioma, author of Booker Prize finalist An Orchestra of Minorities

“This exhilarating novel unweaves the myths of the American West and offers in their place a gorgeous, broken, soulful, feral song of family and yearning, origin and earth. C Pam Zhang is a brilliant, fearless writer. This book is a wonder.” —Garth Greenwell, author of What Belongs to You
 
“A truly gifted writer.” —Sebastian Barry, author of The Secret Scripture
 
“A ravishingly written revisionist story of the making of the West, C Pam Zhang’s debut is pure gold.” Emma Donoghue, author of Room
 
How Much of These Hills is a miracle, as timely as it is timeless, propulsive but also wonderfully meditative, a ferocious, tender epic about a vulnerable immigrant family trying to survive the American Gold Rush. I read it in one night and know I’ll revisit it soon: I envy you your first read of this book.” R.O. Kwon, author of The Incendiaries

“The writing here is intuitive, chewy, wonderful; the plot is devastating and the talent is dazzling. Zhang is a blazing writer.” Daisy Johnson, author of Everything Under

Author

© Clayton Cubitt
Born in Beijing, C Pam Zhang is mostly an artifact of the United States. She is the author of How Much of These Hills Is Gold, winner of the Academy of Arts and Letters Rosenthal Award and the Asian/Pacific Award for Literature; longlisted for the Booker Prize; and a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award and a Lambda Literary Award. Zhang’s writing appears in Best American Short Stories, The Cut, McSweeney’s Quarterly, The New Yorker, and The New York Times. She is a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 Honoree. View titles by C Pam Zhang