Required reading: Help Zhang help you

Tuesday, March 24, 2020 - 6:00pm

Populated sparsely by cowboys and robbers, American folklore recounts the West as a lawless outer bound, tantalizingly wild, wide and undiscovered. Opportunity caked onto riding boots and stuck under saloon stools; the American essense trapped in river basins with prospectors sifting for gold. You could get rich in the American West. Be a landlocked privateer or tumbleweed barkeep. A real-life “choose your own adventure.” 

But how accurate is folktale and Party City canon? Who really owned the West-most land? Who called the land home? The Wild, Wild West was much more dangerous than a preschooler’s birthday party theme. And it was certainly more diverse than your grandpa’s VCR Western. C. Pam Zhang is here to set the record straight with her debut novel “How Much of These Hills is Gold.” Zhang reconsiders the Wild West, highlighting human experience rather than mythologized history. 

Zhang depicts the dry West in lush detail, following two newly orphaned siblings aged 10 and 12 after their father’s death. Without their father, their world is thrown into constant flux. Displaced and homeless with only a stolen horse and the burden of family history, the two siblings embark on a journey, traversing grief and the harsh Western terrain.

Lucy and Sam have conflicting desires. Lucy wants to be clean, to command a space like her mother. Sam wants freedom, to tear free from her circumstances. Sam’s loyalty to their father disturbs Lucy while Lucy’s disregard alienates Sam. Both terrified to be alone, they are tied together by a biological mandate against a hostile world. They are siblings united by shared experience, jealousy and misunderstanding. So rarely do you find a story capable of explaining what it means to be a sister or brother. “How Much of These Hills Is Gold” does it all while lamenting helplessness, disaster, human refuse, gender and missing water buffalo. 

It’s with skill and firm grip that Zhang vivisects America, cutting open and tearing out pretty national stories to find a more truthful tale. Every chapter beholds gold, relentlessly reminding the reader of their hunger for a substantial, haunting story. Homosexuality and gender dysphoria did not spontaneously spawn in the 1980s. All kinds of people populated the American West before Andrew Jackson entered the White House. Zhang rigorously interrogates culture and history, questioning who belongs and who owns while simultaneously weaving spellbinding descriptions and characterizations. Ma and Ba. Parched westernlands and starving horses. Brave Lucy. Fearless Sam. A land across the sea. 

Zhang obliterates grade-school, vanilla “Manifest Destiny” narratives. She introduces desperate siblings and a more diverse (and more accurate) Wild West. By the end of the novel, you will want and need the protagonists to reach deliverance because Zhang has initiated a question larger than two orphaned siblings. Original and beautifully diverse, by page 14, you will want to bite and consume the novel’s pages whole if only to savor Zhang’s world a little longer.

“How Much of These Hills Is Gold” is the perfect quarantine read. Curl up on the sofa with some oolong tea and a Kindle. Zhang’s chapter “Wind Wind Wind Wind Wind” is one for the literary history books. It is luxuriously sharp and reads like poetry. With family dynamics sharpened by race, constant humiliation and a longing for home, this tale prowls circles around your head long after you close the book and turn off the light.