‘How Much of These Hills Is Gold’ brilliantly reimagines the cowboy narrative

Jake Cline

THE WASHINGTON POST – “I hate the cowboy with all my guts,” writer Lauren Groff said in a 2017 New Yorker interview, laying waste to the “smallpox of all narratives” responsible for “generations of emotionally constipated men” who worship violence, guns, greed and other destructive ills.

“We need to constantly push against the narratives we are told to swallow,” the Fates and Furies author said. It’s no surprise, then, to find Groff praising C Pam Zhang’s How Much of These Hills Is Gold in a blurb on the novel’s back cover.

In this outstanding debut, Zhang does more than just push against the cowboy narrative: She shoves it clear out of the way. At once subversive and searching, How Much of These Hills Is Gold is set in the American West during a gold rush – if not necessarily the Gold Rush – and focusses on a family whose roots lie in an unnamed country “from beyond the ocean”.

The ambiguity is intentional, as Zhang places her story between the years “XX42” and “XX67” and frequently has her characters pondering the meaning of home, time and storytelling itself.

Death, too, isn’t always so certain or final. Misdirection abounds here, but the novel’s grave tone seldom wavers. Eleven and 12-years-old, respectively, when the novel opens, sisters Sam and Lucy are three-and-a-half years past the loss of their mother when their father, Ba, dies one night.

Now orphaned, they’re also soon homeless after Sam, seeking two silver dollars to cover their father’s eyes, fires a gun inside a bank, forcing the girls to flee their settlement on a stolen horse.

Sam, without telling her sister, stuffs Ba’s corpse into their mother’s old trunk, and off they go into the hills. Zhang’s writing in these passages can be clinical. This is not a writer who flinches from the grotesque. When the girls open the trunk, their father’s body is unrecognisable.

“He lacks even a man’s shape,” Zhang wrote. The hole the sisters dig for him “takes on a shape like the one inside Lucy, a hollow filled with the smell of loam and morning breath”. The sisters are just as precisely drawn. Lucy, whose nose was made permanently crooked by her father, is eager to escape her old life.

She’s a foot taller than her sister, and far more concentrated on their future. “If someone asks where we’re from – we can say anything,” she tells Sam.

While Lucy is troubled by the question of home in a country that doesn’t seem to want them even though it’s theirs, Sam is “at home wherever Sam goes, shining through hardship.” If anything puts the cowboy narrative out to pasture in this novel, it’s Sam.

Restless and violent, she is determined to show only so much of herself to the world.

She travels the country like a ghost on horseback, but at the same time, she’s deeply afraid of being alone. Because the reader’s vision of Sam is predominantly Lucy’s, the novel shows how the stories we tell ourselves and others are often incomplete – and that goes double for the stories we tell about other people.