January 16

How Much of These Hills Is Gold by C Pam Zhang

I can’t keep up with Obama, but frankly, who, besides Michelle, can?

Every year, he publishes a list of his top 10 reads and every year, I head knowingly to the bookshop to scoop them up.  I could just walk in with the list but no, instead I choose 3 or 4 and wander up to the register with what I hope is the air of someone who has unearthed these titles through their New York Times subscription and bulging network of literary friends. Looking back, I have a vague recollection of a cashier recognising my type, looking at my copy of How Much of These Hills is Gold and sending me off with a “good luck with that” expression.

This book starts with two young sisters who are carting their father’s rotting corpse around in a trunk attached to a stolen horse.  I had to re-read the first few chapters just to make sure I was following properly but yes, it was definitely a rotting corpse in a trunk.  

The scene is an abandoned gold rush town in California and the sisters are determined to give their father a proper burial. The problem is they are only 11 and 12 years old, they have no food or money and it is taking them weeks to agree on the right site.  

As they move along (with the flies and the stench), we learn the story of their mother who came from China to America in a wave of gold rush immigration and their father, who was born in America, but of Asian descent.  I’m not giving anything away by telling you that this couple did not experience a great deal of good fortune in California.  The American dream they realise is not the one of literary fable and this book is no ordinary Western.  

To say this debut Chinese-American novelist, C Pam Zhang expects a lot of her readership is a huge understatement, but through the myth like imagery of buffalos and tigers, I think she is telling the story of Chinese settlers in the Gold Rush era and the racism and policy that determined their fate.  

It may well be that Obama got something different out of the book; then again, no one ever trusted me with the nuclear codes, so I’m ok with that.

How Much of These Hills is Gold didn’t just make it to Obama’s list. It was also on the Booker Prize longlist for 2020.  For me, it’s going on my list of books that I would like to try and read again one day. It’s original (in my case sometimes to the point of indecipherable), it’s bold, it’s layered but it’s also a story that hasn’t been told before and I love that.

God love Obama for keeping me on my toes.

And that’s my 2 cents worth.