How Much of These Hills Is Gold Summary

How Much of These Hills Is Gold is an award-winning 2020 novel about two Chinese American siblings in the American West during the gold rush.

  • After their prospector father dies, orphaned young Lucy and Sam head into the wilderness to find a place to bury him, eventually going their separate ways.
  • Years later, Lucy has settled in the town of Sweetwater but decides to leave with Sam, who is indebted to a gold man and plans to escape to China.
  • Lucy strikes a bargain with the gold man and, after Sam leaves, begins working at Madam Elske’s brothel.


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Last Updated on March 15, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1177

C Pam Zhang’s How Much of These Hills Is Gold is set in the American West during the gold rush. It follows Lucy and Sam, two orphans from a Chinese American family who set out to bury their recently deceased ba (Mandarin Chinese for “dad”) and find a new place to call home. The day after Ba dies, Lucy and her sibling, Sam, whose gender is ambiguous, try to procure two silver coins to bury him with—a custom passed down to them by their ma (“mom”). After an unpleasant incident at the bank, they steal their schoolteacher’s horse and leave town for the wilderness. Lucy initially tries to leave Ba’s corpse behind, but Sam goes to retrieve it anyway. After fighting over whether to discipline their horse, they come across a salt flat, from which they mine enough salt to preserve Ba’s body.

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After a few disagreements, the two soon realize that they have different travel plans. Lucy wants a quiet life in a proper town, while Sam wants to live free and search for buffalo. Later, they come across a tiger skull at the foot of a mountain. To them, the tiger signifies home, so they make the decision to set up camp and bury Ba’s body there. After the burial, Lucy leaves Sam so the latter can say their goodbyes to Ba alone. The next morning, Lucy packs up to keep traveling in search of a town. Sam puts their foot down and insists that the wilderness is their new home. The two siblings then meet a mountain man who draws them a map to a nearby town called Sweetwater. The man also offers to take in Sam, who he assumes is a boy. Lucy cuts in, saying that they already have plans.

Lucy fails to convince Sam to come with her to Sweetwater. While taking a bath in the river, Lucy pulls Sam in by the boot and forcefully undresses them. Two silver coins fall out of Sam’s clothes, which Lucy quickly deduces were stolen from Ba’s burial. Sam tries to justify their actions, insisting that Ba would have wanted them to keep the money for themselves. In the middle of their argument, Lucy starts to bleed as she experiences her first period.

Part 2 of the novel is set in the past, during a time when Ma was still around. Because Ba constantly chased rumors of gold and fortune, the family was used to traveling from place to place. One night, Sam and Lucy caught Ma eating mud. They told Ba, who simply smiled at the realization that Ma must be pregnant. To feed the baby, Ba started coming in with more money than usual, enough for meat and to send Lucy and Sam to school. When a fire broke out at the mines, their panicked Ma rushed home to find that Ba was safe because he no longer worked there. Instead, he had been prospecting and lucked out on a site rich with gold. They start saving to return to Ma’s home across the ocean. The day the family was supposed to leave, Lucy accidentally lost a piece of their gold. They were then stranded at home by a storm. Men broke into their house, looking for more of the gold Lucy lost, and stripped the family of everything. A few days later, Ma gave birth, during which Ba told Sam and Lucy to leave. When Ba emerged from the house, he informed them that both the baby and Ma were gone.

Part 3 consists of one chapter, narrated by the ghost of Ba’s voice. Ba explains that, as an infant, he was found by American Indians along the coast, crying beside the dead bodies of his parents. He claims that it was he and his American Indian friend Billy who were the first to find gold in the river. As time went by, he and Billy worked various jobs until a gold man offered Ba a job managing Chinese immigrant laborers. Among two hundred other Chinese immigrants, Ma caught Ba’s eye, and the two formed a bond with each other. Ma initially mistook Ba as the one in charge. When he corrected her, Ma started asking about the truth behind the gold man’s promises. Seeking revenge on those who wished to exploit her people for cheap labor, Ma convinced Ba to help her set fire to the hired men’s camp. Their plan went astray, however, when the fire also spread to the immigrants’ quarters—killing all of them. That same night, Ba was attacked by a creature he assumed to be a tige, and developed a permanent limp. Finally, Ba confesses that Ma did not die the day she gave birth to a stillborn infant. Rather, she saw the baby’s fate as judgment passed down on their way of living and decided to leave.

The fourth and final part of the novel takes place five years after the events of part 1. Lucy now lives alone in Sweetwater under a false identity. She befriends Anna, the daughter of a powerful prospector, and tolerates Anna’s fiancé, Charles, who secretly fancies Lucy. One day, there are rumors of a tiger in town, but the tiger tracks turn out to be Sam’s. Sam tells Lucy that they are here to say goodbye, as they are leaving for the land across the ocean. Sam’s return awakens Lucy from the stupor of her life, so she decides to join them. She soon discovers that Sam is uneasy and paranoid because they are sought after by dangerous men.

When they arrive at the city along the coast, Lucy asks for rest, and Sam takes her to a brothel, where they meet Madam Elske. Sam is taken upstairs for a bath, while Lucy sits down and exchanges questions with Elske. Before they leave, Elske offers Lucy a job telling stories to men.

When they try to buy tickets for the ship, they find that the prices have gone up. Lucy is forced to bargain with the captain. That same night, they gamble, and Lucy manages to amass a small fortune. In the morning, they’re awakened by a powerful gunshot. A gold man has come to collect Sam’s debt, one they cannot afford to pay back. Lucy realizes that Sam returned to Sweetwater for her, despite the risk of being caught and subsequently murdered by the gold man. She goes to bargain with the gold man alone and ends up offering her services as a prostitute to pay back Sam’s debt. To convince Sam to board the ship and leave without her, Lucy strikes them hard across the face. Endless months pass, and Lucy is molded into a different person. She is given keys to Madam Elske’s library, but she soon grows disillusioned with the novelty of stories. In bed, the gold man asks Lucy what she wants as a gift. The novel ends just as Lucy is about to answer.

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