How the gold rush hasn’t been the subject of better novels is a question worth putting to West Coast literature. To grow up in California in the 1980s was to encounter this period in history books as one of heroism and hucksterism, as if 300,000 people coming to a state in search of gold over five years—that would be 120 million in today’s population—wasn’t more than a rush. These were not tourists. Many became permanent residents who dug in, created camps, and drove Indigenous people from their land. The ’49ers permanently altered the state’s landscape and—with more than half of them coming from outside the United States—its demographics. Nearly 30,000 arrived from China, bringing with them history and culture and food and family. They were often met by “frontier justice,” as it was euphemistically called. What couldn’t be done by outright force was eventually upheld by law, with legislation directly aimed at Chinese migrants to make prospecting prohibitively expensive or shut down immigration for them all together.
At last there is a novel that looks right into this history and imagines it from within. It might be a stretch to call it California’s Beloved, but C Pam Zhang’s How Much of These Hills Is Gold moves with the same rough magic and has a similar relationship to history as Toni Morrison’s haunted and beautiful book. Only here history, too, becomes a ghost. We never hear the word “California” in this novel, and it’s nearly 100 pages before the word “gold” is seen. Still, by tilting this period through a refractive lens, Zhang has powerfully evoked the precarious existence many of its residents lived and allows us to inhabit the bodies of two girls: Lucy, 12, and Sam, who is 11. They’ve lost their mother, Ma, already, and their father, Ba, soon follows. Broke, hungry, and aware that their situation is not safe, the sisters saddle up a stolen horse and carry their father’s body on the run. Their behavior quickly begins to map onto the skittery emigration pattern their father charted when he brought them to these hills with dreams of gold, land, a farm, good living. That was before drink and miner brutality and grief waylaid him. Sam has a lot of her father in her; she learns to sneak out and prospect at a young age and is ready for a fight. She wants to take chances. Lucy is cautious, eager to find official paths, to seek approval—even from a dubious East Coast teacher writing a book about people like her family. Lucy hasn’t forgone risk; she simply takes different ones.
Zhang takes a chance herself here, wading into the well-trod territory of the western, but she’s a writer of immense poise. Having grown up and lived in 13 cities, she wrote the first draft of this novel in Bangkok, far away from the golden hills where the book unfolds. Clearly her mind’s eye is lucid, though. She writes lean but sensual prose that vividly conjures the stench and muck and wonder of traveling across a landscape that has been brutally used. The moon hangs high on cold nights. In Zhang’s universe, buffalo might still be alive somewhere, and tigers roam those hills. Each day, the girls find something new, a dying if still hardy prospector needing help one day, a dried-up salt lake where they can preserve their father on another. Zhang creates an epic tale in a small space; her story reaches back and back and then yokes forward the lives Ma and Ba lived before, the incredible journeys they underwent so they could have the privilege of living on the precarious edge of a nearly fictional enterprise. What is gold anyway? Movingly, we hear in flashback how the girls’ father ordered and told the world for his daughters, in fables that move like water. As the sisters come of age in the shadow of this inheritance, the past as evanescent as California rain, Zhang allows us to appreciate how hard it is for them not to be driven one way or the other. Do they move toward great gambles, and, if it’s required, violence, or toward finding ways to know and contain official history, so that they might write it themselves? Taking a risk, as Colson Whitehead did in The Underground Railroad, to imagine history as even stranger than we allow, C Pam Zhang has proved it’s possible to do both.
John Freeman is the editor of Freeman’s (the latest issue of which is devoted to California), the author of several books, including The Park, and the host of Alta’s new California Book Club. He last wrote for Alta about establishing a new California curriculum.
Sign up to hear Freeman discuss How Much of These Hills Is Gold with C Pam Zhang at the kickoff event for Alta’s California Book Club, on Thursday, October 15, at 5 p.m. Pacific time.