C Pam Zhang is the first to admit that her new novel How Much of These Hills is Gold is not “realistic” historical fiction. After all, her lyrical but brutal tale of two orphaned siblings trying to survive in the Gold Rush-era West places tigers in the landscape right there alongside the iconic buffalo.
But insisting that tigers aren’t native to North America and certainly didn’t coexist with cowboys in the old West is entirely beside the novel’s point, which is more that all narratives of the Wild West—John Wayne movies, epic migration novels, immigrant tales, TV shoot ’em ups—are essentially fairy tales. Those more familiar fairy tales, says Zhang, are simply the dream-state projections of their white male storytellers.
“I have this kind of internal defiance when I’m asked how much I pulled from history,” says the San Francisco-based Zhang, 30, of her debut novel. “Recorded history is written for and by white men. And it actually manages to overlook a huge swath of experiences, whether it’s from Chinese immigrants or other immigrants or queer people or poor people. I’m interested in thinking in those liminal spaces.”
Yet tagging How Much as an example of “magical realism” doesn’t quite work either. The novel is unsparing in its depiction of death and desperation. Tough-minded and unflinching in the face of casual racism, it presents a land oscillating between cataclysmic flood and punishing drought. It brings the reader uncomfortably close to the realities of a rotting corpse.
At its center are Lucy, 12, and Sam, 11, suddenly orphaned by the death of their father, known as Ba, a Chinese immigrant lured by the promise of gold that turned out to be a mirage. The siblings are first intent on finding two silver dollars to set upon Ba’s eyes, assuring him a peaceful transition to the afterlife. Then they drag his corpse across a beautiful but cruel landscape looking for a proper burial site.
Zhang was born in China, but grew up in various places around the American West, including Northern California. Her previous fiction writing had been set in contemporary times. It’s a surprise to her, she says, that her first novel is from the Gold-Rush era.
“I just woke up one day and I had the first sentence of the novel and a couple of key characters and images in my head,” she says. “There wasn’t any sort of planning. I’ve been asked if I had an intent to write about this time period or this slice of history. I absolutely did not.”
Still, the book emerges from Zhang’s literary influences, most directly Laura Ingalls Wilder’s immortal series Little House on the Prairie. “I read those books cover to cover many times over as a child,” she says, “during a period in which my family was also moving around a lot.” She also cited Larry McMurtry’s timeless Lonesome Dove and a certain kinship with John Steinbeck (one of the many towns where she lived as a child was Steinbeck’s hometown of Salinas).
But those authors and others who have written about the American West have rarely paid much heed to the Chinese immigrant experience. Zhang says she wanted to depict the deep psychological displacement that is inherent in the immigrant experience. “There is no standard Chinese-American experience in the West, or elsewhere,” she says. “One experience that a lot of immigrants go through is not understanding how the culture of their particular family is—or is not—representative of the culture that their parents came from. In many immigrant households, there’s this weird mishmash, as it was for me. I did do some research, and there were key historical events that I was interested in conversing with—like the building of the Transcontinental Railroad, which included a lot of Chinese immigrant labor, and the Chinese Exclusion Act. But it was just as important to me to make sure I was loyal to my characters as I followed their lives wherever they led, whether it was to fact or fiction.”
Perhaps because the word “gold” is in the title, the new book may be thought of as a California novel. Though Zhang says that she would be honored for her book to be considered part of the canon of California literature, she also believes it would sit uncomfortably there.
“In my mind, the landscapes are very much California landscapes, but I don’t use any formal place names, so it’s not quite set in our world,” she says. “It’s been interesting to me as an author to hear people converse about that, and see if they pick up on it.”