Book Review: How Much of These Hills is Gold

Overall Rating: 4.5/5

How Much of These Hills is Gold tells the story of two newly orphaned siblings growing up in Northern California during the gold rush as they strive to find their place as first-generation immigrants. As someone who has never quite been able to call a country home, the thematic substance of this book compelled me from the very first page. There is something in it for everybody – be it the dreamlike storytelling, conflation of reality with mythology, or thoughtful characterization of human identity. The epic-style storytelling plays with tone and language, elevating the book’s bildungsroman elements to a masterpiece on the search for self in an ever-changing – and challenging – social landscape.

The book itself is structured in parts but that is the only notion of structure to this story. Non-linear storytelling can be difficult to execute with plots as intricate as this but not only was Zhang able to hold my attention throughout, her stylistic changes appropriately supported the story itself. The book starts off with limited dialogue which serves to create a deep sense of isolation (and intimacy) in the story, an undercurrent that permeates the pages until the last section of the book. The family itself is battered by fragmented relationships, betrayal, and abuse, which are complemented by this distant tone of the story and later validated by the plot itself. As a result, the real estate of the book is occupied by remarkable imagery, weaving a fantasy world that rests precariously on a platform of despair and demonstrates the escape often sought through imagination. Moreover, the characters and their relationships themselves are nurtured carefully, and Zhang takes her time to develop and love them through their deepest flaws.

In addition to telling a beautiful story, the book also addresses key societal and historical issues such as xenophobia, racism, and the erasure of minorities from discussions of significant events. The California gold rush attracted thousands of individuals from around the world but the events in the book illustrate only a few ways in which Asian-Americans were discredited at the time. Lucy’s personal conflicts with identifying her “home” are poignantly relatable to immigrants all around the world, including myself, who struggle to capture the meaning of belonging, especially when its validity is questioned consistently. Sam, too, poses as a foil to Lucy in many ways, demonstrating the diversity in immigrant experiences and how they are shaped through cultural pressures.

While I mostly loved the way the story is set up, I will admit that I struggled with the last part of the book. The ending in particular felt rushed, and the hastened pace and switch in tone felt overwhelming. Where each previous event had been catered to and revisited through multiple mediums of storytelling, the last chapters felt like they slipped through my fingers before I could appreciate their essence. This is likely to just be personal preference, but I was unable to buy into the series of plot twists that occurred shortly after one another in what felt like an attempt to shock where one was not required. Nonetheless, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would recommend it to anybody interested in historical fiction or immigrant narratives. Have you read How Much of These Hills is Gold? If so, let me know what you think!

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