Review: C Pam Zhang's ambitious novel turns the Western on its head with Chinese myth

Mark Athitakis
Special for USA TODAY
“How Much of These Hills Is Gold,” by C Pam Zhang.

The Western has endured long past the days of stagecoaches and six-shooters because it’s so adaptable – it remains a superb genre for exploring (just for starters) identity, lawlessness and home. In her debut novel, “How Much of These Hills Is Gold” (Riverhead, 288 pp., ★★★ out of four), C Pam Zhang plainly cherishes the genre’s broad themes. Everything else that defines the Western gets run through a shredder.

Zhang makes that intention clear even before the story starts: “This land is not your land” is the novel’s epigraph, turning a folksy line on its head. Its premise does much the same. We’re in a place resembling 19th-century California, but instead of hardy gold miners heading west, the story focuses on an Asian family that headed east across the Pacific. Instead of grizzled frontiersmen, the story turns on two siblings, Lucy and Sam, orphaned during the Gold Rush. A robbery attempt to get silver coins to bury with their father has made them outlaws. But then, they always were. 

“They’ll make anything a crime for the likes of us,” Lucy tells Sam. “Make it a law if they have to.”

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As the story shifts in time, Zhang reveals Lucy’s path to that awareness. The siblings’ parents arrived in gold country ready to make a fortune, bearing a trove of rituals and folklore. (Tiger imagery abounds.) But racism makes the family outcasts, as does sexism: Female coal miners receive one-eighth of men’s wages, prompting Sam (born Samantha) to identify as male, at first publicly and then also privately. Good intentions end in calamity; efforts to improve the family’s fortunes run into a buzzsaw of injustice.

Lucy and Sam’s journey across the West to find safety is straightforward enough. But 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: Lucy “has packed so tight the grave of her girlhood that little feeling trembles through,” she writes. 

Author C Pam Zhang.

But Zhang’s microscopic attention to every line means many of them feel labored over. Sentences groan with metaphor (“Ma is once again the sun, the moon, her naked belly casting a horrible light around which the day turns”) or forced portentousness (“None of those who came to dig the West reckoned on the land’s parched thirst, on how it drank their sweat and strength.” Each chapter has a raw, elemental title: “Salt,” “Mud,” “Meat,” “Blood,” etc. But instead of giving the story an earthy simplicity, the symbolism just as often burdens the storytelling (“Cowaaaaaaard, the wind says sadly.”)

The novel’s flaws are consistently a function of Zhang’s ambition, though – she’s confidently determined to make something new of the Western. Which is fitting, because her two memorable lead characters are trying to make themselves new as well. Spotting a fresh town on the frontier, Lucy tells Sam that they can wipe their slate clean, make a home without being beholden to anybody else’s ideas. “We can say anything,” she says. “We don’t need any history at all.”