How Much of These Hills Is Gold

by C Pam Zhang

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Chapters 1–4 Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on March 15, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 762

Chapter 1

How Much of These Hills Is Gold begins with the revelation that Ba has died in the night. Sam and Lucy, Ba’s two daughters, scramble to find two silver coins to bury him with. Lucy attempts to borrow the sum from Jim, the store manager, but he refuses her. The two are also sent away at the bank, prompting Sam to draw Ba’s gun and aim it at one of the bankers. Although Sam misses the shot, the two sisters are forced to flee because of the incident. They steal the schoolmaster’s horse and pack light, leaving their father’s corpse behind.

In the wilderness, Lucy wakes one morning to find Sam and Nellie, the horse, gone. In her search for Sam, she runs into a group of young bullies who taunt and assault her. Luckily, Sam returns in time and scares the perpetrators away with the rotting corpse of their father. In their wake, the bullies leave a burlap sack full of food supplies and a few coins.

Chapter 2

Lucy reminisces about how Ma instilled in her the importance of properly burying the dead. The two sisters roam the wilderness for days, looking for the right place to bury their father. At one point, Ba’s genitals fall off, and the two bury them separately from his body.

Lucy remembers taking in a stray dog shortly after their mother’s death. One afternoon, Ba drunkenly flung his whiskey bottle at it and missed. Feigning injury, the dog was able to escape with a piece of pork in its mouth. When the dog eventually returned, Ba crippled its hind legs to teach Lucy a lesson about loyalty. He accused her of bringing a thief into their home. Ba’s question of “What makes a dog a dog?” became an inside joke among the two sisters.

Chapter 3

Nellie attempts to escape in the dead of night, but Sam quickly restrains her. The two sisters fight over whether to rest or keep carrying on. When Lucy accidentally scratches Sam’s cheek, Sam glares at her accusingly. Lucy then runs up the biggest hill she can find and weeps. There, she stumbles on a salt flat.

Late in the afternoon, Lucy climbs down and reconciles with her sister. The two then dig salt from the salt flat and sprinkle it over their father’s corpse, killing all the maggots. The corpse shrivels up to a size smaller than either of them, allowing them to easily place it inside a rucksack.

Chapter 4

Lucy and Sam plot trails in the sand. They realize that they have wildly differing ideas about their destination. Sam wishes to journey around the wilderness in search of buffalo, but Lucy maintains that the buffalo are long extinct. For her part, Lucy wishes to follow the wagon trail and live a quiet life in civilization.

The two sisters soon chance upon a tiger’s skull at the foot of a mountain, which Sam interprets as a fortuitous sign.


The first few chapters of How Much of These Hills Is Gold centers on the aftermath of Ba’s death and how his two daughters, Lucy and Sam (whose gender expression is ambiguous, and to whom Zhang avoids referring with pronouns), struggle to give him a proper burial. While their mother, Ma, is no longer with them, she is never referred to as dead—only “gone.” Nevertheless, there is still no one to help the two sisters procure the two silver coins they need to bury their father with. Sam’s attempt to threaten the banker with Ba’s gun marks the first of the two sisters’ many...

(This entire section contains 762 words.)

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disagreements, as Lucy tries to stop Sam from firing. She even checks on the banker first—not on her sister—after the gun is fired. It is clear that Lucy is ashamed of Sam’s rough-and-tumble ways. Their differences are further emphasized when Sam rides back for Ba’s dead body, which Lucy had originally chosen to leave behind.

It is revealed in chapter 2 that the tradition of placing silver coins on the eyes of the deceased was passed down to them by Ma, who first instilled it in Lucy. When she was five, Lucy found a drowned black snake, which Ma instructed her to bury with a silver thimble on its head.

Finally, it is worth noting that Ba’s line “What makes a dog a dog?” recurs throughout the novel, as Lucy twists the question in various ways: What makes a man a man? What makes a home a home?


Chapters 5–9 Summary and Analysis