"This land is not your land," says the epigraph to C Pam Zhang's How Much of These Hills Is Gold. And this message could almost have been aimed directly at the story's protagonists, the young Chinese American orphans Lucy and Sam. The American West in which they live so often feels like an alien land, a place where they do not truly belong.
Lucy and Sam's family experience racism on a regular basis, alienating them from the land in which they live. These unpleasant experiences reinforce the sense that this land is not their land, and that despite originally belonging to Indigenous tribes, it has now been appropriated by the white man, who gets to decide who is and who isn't an American.
Given their detachment from the land beneath their feet, it's not surprising that Lucy and Sam's family often resort to fantasy to establish some kind of connection with the American West. Sam dreams of being a cowboy, whereas his late father, Ba, came to America in order to make his fortune in the Gold Rush.
In both cases, their dreams are cruelly dashed. Ba arrived too late to make his fortune and instead had to toil away in a mine to make a living. Sam is prevented from becoming a cowboy because of the color of his skin. He will never be accepted as an equal by the white man.