Lucy’s father has died. She and her sister, Sam, must lay him to rest. There are two things the siblings need to do. One is find two silver coins to place over his eyes. This is a tradition. They also need to find somewhere to bury him. These are the sorts of matters grieving families, daily, across the world need to attend to when they lose a loved one.
But Lucy and Sam are not like other people. Lucy is twelve, and Sam eleven. Their mother is also gone, leaving them orphaned. Not only are they at a loss to procure silver coins, they’re struggling to find somewhere to bury their father. Could – you ask – have C Pam Zhang, the American author of How Much of These Hills is Gold (published by Penguin Random House, 2020), have made their predicament any harsher?
As it happens; yes. The girls do not reside in latter-day times; rather mid nineteenth century America; the dying days of the gold rush. This has left them carrying their father’s decaying corpse in a crate strapped to their horse’s back, as they trek the hills beyond California.
Lucy and Sam are the children of immigrants, who live hand to mouth. They were born in this land, yet by virtue of their appearance, are considered outsiders. To not belong here. What they see (and hear and are subjected to) is far from pleasant, though on occasion they are surprised by the kindness of those they encounter.
Through lyrical, sometimes magical prose, we are carried by the same chill wind– that also converses with Lucy – to the distant, desolate, hills where the girls wander. But How Much of These Hills is Gold is not an easy story to define. It is expansive, spanning decades even, and follows Lucy and Sam as they eventually leave the hills.
The story is as unsettling as it is gratifying. It is shrouded by a continually lingering discomfort, a harbinger perhaps of further misfortune to come.