Book Review: How Much of These Hills is Gold

I’m continuing my way through the Booker Prize longlist with How Much of These Hills is Gold. The story centers around two young Chinese-American siblings, Sam and Lucy, who become orphans during the peak of the American Gold Rush. After their Ba dies, the siblings set on a journey to bury him, and to find a home for themselves beyond their poor mining town.

The book: How Much of These Hills is Gold by C Pam Zhang
Genre: Historical fiction
Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5

I have mixed feelings on this novel, but I’ll start with what worked for me. Structurally, How Much of These Hills is Gold was very interesting: the novel is divided into four sections, which are non-linear and not all narrated by the same person. Non-linear timelines can be so hit or miss for me, but Zhang executed this one beautifully; I particularly liked that the family’s history prior to Ba’s death wasn’t described until after Ba’s passing. Things are going well for the family in the second part of the book, but it is clear (to the reader) from the first section that their luck is going to turn – this dramatic irony left me with a sense of suspense, dread, and impending doom.

I also really enjoyed Zhang’s writing voice, which manages to pack subtle, yet powerful, commentary into seemingly simple sentences. Through Sam and Lucy’s experiences, Zhang depicts the complexity of family dynamics, as well as the intense racism that Chinese Americans faced in the 19th-century. Some of the prejudices that Lucy and Sam experience – particularly the way they are fetishized and exoticized, and the way their teacher talks about “domesticating” them – felt like they could have been written about contemporary times, rather than 170 years ago.

The character development is where I start to have mixed feelings. Lucy, who I consider to be the main character of the novel, is portrayed as lacking agency and a strong sense of self, while her sibling Sam is full of swagger and personality. Surprisingly, I thought Lucy was more well-developed than Sam: the driving forces behind Lucy’s reserved nature are deeply explored, whereas Sam is portrayed as bold but somewhat hard-to-understand. I would have loved to see more of the novel from Sam’s perspective! At the same time, I can appreciate that Zhang decided to focus more on the internal workings of someone reserved and insecure, who in real life might be overlooked next to their spunky sibling (or maybe I’m just projecting my middle-child baggage onto a fictional character).

I feel even more conflicted about the portrayal of Sam and Lucy’s Ba, who for the first two sections is characterized as an intimidating, prideful, and at times violent alcoholic. Then, the third section of the book is narrated by Ba himself, and Zhang shows the family history from his perspective, as well as the pain and trauma behind his abusive behavior. While this chapter was incredibly moving, and added layers of nuance to the story, I also found it troubling. Yes, the abusive character in this novel is obviously struggling with his own trauma, but why should that mean that he gets to be the most complex and well-explored character in the novel? When authors do this, it almost feels like they are excusing abusive characters for their atrocious behavior.

Where I took the most issue with the book, though, was the ending. Without spoiling anything, How Much of These Hills is Gold ends with a character making a huge sacrifice that (to me) felt completely unnecessary. The emotional impact of that sacrifice wasn’t well-explored, either, so the ending felt abrupt and unsettling. On top of that, the last sentence of the book leaves things open-ended, so the novel’s ending is not only jarring, but also vague.

As you can probably tell, How Much of These Hills is Gold was a rather mixed bag for me. Although this review focuses more on what I didn’t enjoy, I really liked the majority of this novel. I found the prose and main characters complex and compelling, and the commentary intensely powerful. But the aspects of this novel that didn’t work for me really didn’t work for me. With a different ending, this book would have been a 4-star read, but because of the vague and abrupt ending, I’m rating it 3.5 stars out of 5.