John Leonard Nominations

Leonard Prize 2020: How Much of These Hills Is Gold

By Anita Felicelli

NBCC members: If you’d like to contribute a review of an eligible book for the 2020 Leonard Prize, write to NBCC board member Megan Labrise at Read the rest of the reviews here.

How Much of These Hills Is Gold by C Pam Zhang (Riverhead)

The story of California is complicated and textured, sometimes maddeningly so. The state is perceived as a Promised Land where, seemingly, anything is possible — anyone can reinvent themselves and every fortune can turn. Yet it is also a place with a devastating history of racism and xenophobia — once the most xenophobic state in the nation. How might a novel manage to reconcile these paradoxical realities? C Pam Zhang’s How Much of These Hills is Gold responds to this question.

As Zhang puts it: “Who could truly grasp it, the huge and maddening glint, the ever-shifting mirage, the grass that refused to be owned or pinned but changed with every angle of light: what that land was, and to whom, death or life, good or bad, lucky or unlucky, countless lives birthed and destroyed by its terror and generosity.” Nevertheless, the author manages to grasp California in a way that novels rarely do, filling it with violent immigrant struggle when too often that fight is marginalized under the pressure of American Dream fantasies. Zhang captures the tangible reality of California’s landscape — its “glint” and changing grasses — while imbuing her sentences with a sense of contradiction, the vicissitudes of life.

As the novel begins two destitute Chinese American siblings leave their dangerous mining town during the Gold Rush in search of a place in the hills to bury their abusive father. As they seek-out a burial spot, they are made to know that they do not belong. Home seems out of reach: “Home sounds like a fairy tale that Ma reads from a secret fourth book, written on the backs her shut eyelids.” The novel dips back in time to reveal Ba and Ma’s years of prospecting and hardship before shifting to Ba’s story as he narrates it after his death, and then leaps ahead again to the siblings’ reunion in a frontier town.

In its gorgeous reimagining of the American Western the novel fuses a brutal realism with folklore and myth, an atmosphere is generated not only by the events of the story — there might be tigers in these hills — but also in the lyricism and striking syntax of the novel’s language. Old tales justifying and glorifying westward expansion have been more memorable than true. Chinese Americans were rendered invisible even though their labor was crucial in building the American West. By reshaping the myths to intimately foreground a Chinese American family, Zhang has forged something new and radical. Like Beloved or As I Lay Dying, it’s a haunted book.

How Much of these Hills is Gold possesses the astonishment of revelation, but more importantly perhaps, an elemental force. Its epigraph states, “This land is not your land.” Yet with grace and power, the novel that follows refutes this claim. Zhang’s debut is the novel for which we have waited too long—it is a book of reclamation.