November’s book was How Much of These Hills is Gold by C Pam Zhang.
This novel tells the story of two orphans, Lucy and Sam, who are roaming a hostile landscape in the hills of Northern California with the remains of their dead father stowed in a trunk strapped across their horse’s back. During their trek, the two siblings recall events from their family’s past and their attempts to prospect for gold that always ended in tragedy. The novel spans the years between 1842 and 1867.
Lucy and Sam are American born but are of Chinese descent. Sam was born a girl but identifies as male. Their father, Ba, was an unsuccessful gold prospector who never gave up his dream of striking it rich, and briefly succeeded at mining a deposit of gold before the family’s wealth was stolen by greedy townsfolk. The children’s mother died giving birth to a stillborn son.
After many setbacks, the siblings finally find a place to bury their father. Once this task is completed, the narration shifts to Ba, who tells a different tale of the family’s past from the one Lucy believes to be true. Among other revelations, Ba reveals that the children’s mother didn’t die in childbirth, but stole the family’s last piece of gold to make her escape, leaving Ba to hold the family together as best as he could.
Lucy’s narrative continues after she and Sam part ways. She drifts through life, first as a laundress, then as the friend of a rich girl. Sam returns years later and explains that he struck gold, which was then stolen by some white men who are now pursuing him because he stole it back. The siblings flee to San Francisco, where Lucy puts Sam on a ship bound for China. The gold men catch up with Lucy, who then works as a prostitute to pay off Sam’s debt. When she is released from her obligation a year later, she still doesn’t know what she wants or where to find a true home.
The novel explores race and the question of where immigrants are allowed to belong. Alongside Lucy and Sam’s family story are the stories of the genocide and persecution of Native Americans, the colonisation of the West and the exploitation of the land by desperate settlers and greedy opportunists.
During discussion there were comments about the quality and style of the writing (this is a debut novel for the writer). Some members felt that the writer had been too ambitious and not quite pulled it off with this novel, though some liked her use of imagery (specifically, the tiger) and her inclusion of the Chinese language throughout the book.
While some of the group appreciated the writer’s ability to convey the hostility and vastness of the landscape, overall the novel was considered quite bleak, and the ending unsatisfying.
Ratings: Lynda, Janet and Viv 2.5 Nicola, Pauline and Margie 3 and Dianne and Di 3.5.
We are a group that gets together once a month to discuss good books. Each of us gets to choose a book on a rotational basis, preferably one outside our personal comfort zone – we try to keep the trash to ourselves. After the discussion, we comment on other books we read that month. Most of the time we remain friends after the meeting.
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