How Much of These Hills Is Gold: A haunting debut

Book review: C Pam Zhang’s novel tells the story of two young daughters of Chinese migrants left to fend for themselves

Chinese American men panning for gold in a California riverbed.

Chinese American men panning for gold in a California riverbed.

The title of C Pam Zhang’s debut novel evokes a folksy old expression, which originally comes from Mark Twain’s 1892 novel The American Claimant. But it also explicitly alludes to the Chinese experience of gold prospecting in 19th-century America. The most common Chinese name for San Francisco, Jiujinshan, means “old gold mountain”, maintaining a historical echo of the California gold rush in a city still home to one of North America’s largest Chinese populations.

How Much of These Hills Is Gold takes place across several decades either side of the rush, and tells the tale of two young daughters of Chinese migrants left to fend for themselves after their father, worn down by liquor and life in the mines, drops dead, three years after their mother has expired in childbirth.

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