Six hundred and ninety miles of the Transcontinental Railroad were laid by Chinese immigrants. Many of them were drawn to California by the gold rush of the late 1840s, but a scant decade later, the land had been depleted of riches, and they arrived instead to encounter unfriendly locals who distrusted foreign faces. The construction of the Central Pacific Railroad, the segment of the Transcontinental Railroad that stretched from Sacramento to Utah’s Promontory Summit, began in 1863, and white foremen quickly recruited Chinese immigrants looking for work to do the most physically demanding labor, compensating them at a fraction of the pay that whites received. By 1867, Chinese immigrants made up about 90 percent of the Central Pacific’s labor force. Historians estimate that at least 1,200 died in the construction of the railroad—approximately two Chinese men for every mile of track they laid.

Set in this historical landscape, C Pam Zhang’s debut novel, How Much of These Hills Is Gold, tells the soaring saga of two siblings trying to find their place in the world. It’s XX62 when the book begins, the redacted numerals hinting at a slightly alternative universe, and 12-year-old Lucy and 11-year-old Sam are setting off to bury their father, Ba. An alcoholic and a gambler, a harsh, impulsive man prone to fits of violence and, less frequently, of tenderness, he has died perhaps of exhaustion, perhaps of alcoholism—either way, leaving his children without money or a home. We learn that Ma, their mother, died three and a half years earlier. The two orphaned and penniless children set out from their town, beginning a quest in which both, in their different ways, hope to find a place to belong.

Zhang’s novel recalls our own world—or rather, our history—in certain ways, yet with dashes of magical realism. One thing that remains in her reimagined American West is the racism, shaping every aspect of Sam and Lucy’s experience of the world. At each turn in their journey, the two face odd looks from strangers that can escalate into taunts, slurs, and sometimes physical harm. The world the two inhabit is a dangerous one, shadowed by the great white mounds of giant buffalo bones and the paw prints of stalking, mythical tigers as well as more human threats: hateful men, leering cowboys, greedy gold prospectors, and below it all, the blistering thrum of heat, thirst, and potential starvation.

The siblings have different stances on these dangers. Sam responds to conflict with conflict, unafraid to fight and constantly yearning to wander. Lucy is more cautious and concerned with thoughts of finding a new home; she craves wooden houses with glass windows, baths, and clean sheets.

As they move through this hazardous landscape, the two remain caught in a liminal space, stuck between the American West and the storied, half-remembered China of their mother’s memories. Without their parents or an immigrant community to guide them, they must choose how to navigate not just the West’s dangers but also their unfixed and uncertain identities. “In Lucy’s fondest dream, the one she doesn’t want to wake from, she braves no dragons and tigers,” Zhang writes. “She sees wonders from a distance, her face unnoticed in the crowd. When she walks down the long street that leads her home, no one pays her any mind at all.”

Sam doesn’t share Lucy’s assimilationist dreams, never content to stay in one place for very long and refusing to fit into any existing framework. “We can’t survive out here,” Lucy tells her sibling at one point, when Sam wants to homestead at the base of some mountains miles from civilization. “There’s nothing. No people.” “What’d people ever do for us?” Sam retorts. Despite the historical setting, the striking familiarity of Lucy and Sam’s narrative and the world we live in suggests that, despite the likely passage of 160 years, little has changed in the experience of racism as an Asian American.

It’s the crack of a gunshot that propels Sam and Lucy out of town, after Sam fires their father’s gun during a botched bank robbery and the bullet narrowly misses a white man. The bungled, impulsive holdup forces the two to flee. When Sam stubbornly argues for staying—they didn’t hurt nobody—Lucy disagrees: “They’ll make anything a crime for the likes of us. Make it law if they have to.” By “the likes of us,” Lucy is aware that the rules are different for them. And so the two steal a schoolteacher’s horse, gather up their provisions, and flee into the desert, lugging the corpse of their father in their mother’s old medicine chest.

The novel’s first part follows Sam and Lucy’s journey east; evocative and sharply honed, the prose can occasionally get mired in its lyricism. Zhang’s sentences are deliberately hewn to the point of fracture, the diction dry as the scorched landscape the siblings traverse, conjuring up rough gems embedded in earth. But as the two flee through the desert seeking sheer survival, Zhang deftly integrates their upbringing through a series of flashbacks. Though the siblings are trying to find a proper burial place for him, their father’s decomposing body parts are deposited by Lucy in several places along the way: a finger under a mound here, a toe buried there, even his flaccid penis, falling out of the medicine chest after a good thump, which “gives under her toes, like a dried plum.”

As the novel progresses so, too, does the prose: The sentences begin to feel less arid as the story dives back into the past in the second section, set in XX59, before their mother’s death, in which the family’s relationships are triangulated among parents and children, each marking the changing world around them.

Here we learn of the racist treatment that their parents faced. Ba, reduced from gold prospector to humble coal miner, was severely underpaid, and when he had to find shelter for his family, he was offered only a former chicken coop to rent, still stinking of animal shit. Meanwhile, Ma was the person who held the household together, at times stridently demanding, at others wielding her femininity and beauty like a weapon. In fleshing out the family’s world, Zhang gives further context to the bigotry they experienced and outlines the lesson—hard-earned for Lucy—that appearances are both of the utmost importance and, when sorely tested, completely illusory.

As we move through these sections, we also discover that Lucy has a secret, one she hopes will propel her out of her circumstances: She’s a budding intellectual. Her mother taught her and Sam to read English, which astonishes the settlement’s white schoolteacher (yes, the same one whose horse they later steal). After a difficult start at school stemming from racist bullying, Lucy begins private lessons at Teacher Leigh’s house, ostensibly in return for helping him with a monograph on the Western territory. The visits introduce her to a different kind of society: straitlaced, genteel manners; cookies with jam centers; an expensive covered jar of salt that makes her mouth water. Teacher Leigh has an ulterior motive, however. To him, Lucy is an object of study herself, part of his monograph’s survey, and he plies her with questions accordingly: “What does your father drink? How much? Can you describe his attitude toward violence? Would you call it savage?”

Though Lucy learns the language and the manners and is increasingly able to comport herself like a young lady of “great breeding,” it’s clear that Teacher Leigh, despite what he thinks of as good intentions, still can’t see her as a person and always categorizes her as other. He refuses to grant Lucy the humanity so easily ascribed to white men and women, and he’s quick to let his praise drop when her true personality and upbringing show. When his own teacher, Miss Lila, visits him, wishing to witness the miracle of Lucy’s learning, he presents his young pupil with a hypothetical scenario intended to display the quality of her character. “Let’s say you and I are traveling the same wagon trail,” he begins. The two have equal provisions in this scenario, but misfortune causes Lucy to lose all her goods while fording a river, and the water is unfit to drink from. What is she to do?

“Lucy nearly laughs,” Zhang tells us. “Why, this question is easy. The answer comes quicker than math or history. ‘I’d butcher an ox. I’d drink its blood and continue on till fresh water,’” she answers confidently. This, Lucy learns, is the wrong answer, one that’s unbecoming for a young lady. The correct answer: She should ask for his help, for Leigh would surely lend a hand and thus spread goodwill. Yet Lucy recalls a time on the trail with her parents, who had nothing: “All those miles they traveled, and not once did another wagon offer help.”

Assimilation, it’s clear, is impossible, despite how much Lucy might crave it. When her family is betrayed by a group of white men at a crucial moment at the settlement, this lesson is only underlined: No matter how good you are, no matter how honest your motives, it’s your otherness—the fact of your face, a thing no one can control—that will eventually betray you.

In Zhang’s text, the manifold experiences of racism are manifested in the two siblings’ contrasting presentations. Sam, a year younger, is impetuous, masculine, and beautiful; Lucy is plainer, quiet, and determined. As she becomes aware of her burgeoning womanhood, of how it feels to be looked at and what being looked at means, she also becomes aware of the risks that her body, fetishized by white men, makes her vulnerable to. Meanwhile, Sam knows the importance of presenting oneself in a calculated way: “What people see shapes how they treat you.” Early in the text, Sam’s gender is revealed—the two siblings are, in fact, sisters—as well as Sam’s desire to be perceived otherwise. Though Lucy continues to use “she” and “her” for Sam throughout the book’s narration, it’s clear that Sam presents as a man and wishes to be treated like one, going so far as to pack a phallus-shaped rock in a secretly sewn pants pocket near the crotch.

Performance is everything: Both siblings know that a change in dress, a lowering or softening of the voice, good manners, or a gun can affect how someone is perceived and that this perception can make the difference between life and death. Yet no matter their dress or manners or competence, their faces remain a constant reminder of their otherness and, in turn, reveal the inequity of the world they inhabit.

What does it mean to live in a country that refuses to accept you? Lucy and Sam, born in the United States, have an only rudimentary grasp of Chinese; they’ve grown up speaking and reading English. Their dialogue is a mix of English and Chinese, unitalicized and left untranslated for the reader. Yet they have no memories of their motherland; they don’t even have images of it. While Lucy yearns for acceptance in the American territories, Sam wonders about the country their family decided to leave. It feels inevitable that Zhang has chosen to present this search for home as a split narrative, the decisions of the siblings fragmenting into separate futures. The forking paths of Lucy and Sam remind the reader that there isn’t one true way of feeling at home in the world, that there are as many ways of navigating a fractured identity as there are immigrants and the children of immigrants and their children’s children.

The book’s fantastical refiguring allows for some moments of narrative poignancy, particularly in dreamlike images like the repeated motif of a stalking tiger’s paw prints, which make literal the cultural and inherited trauma and perhaps even hope that link parent and child. In the book’s most magical and breathtakingly beautiful section, told from the point of view of their father’s ghost, we learn how Ba’s relationship with their mother came to be and the sacrifices it required from them and their community. It’s revealed that Ba was born in America—or at least found there as an orphaned child—and so he grew up speaking English, unfamiliar with Chinese. When he meets Ma, she’s the person who teaches him the language. The gaps of understanding between the two lovers—and later between them and their children—contribute to the intergenerational immigrant experience Zhang’s narrative describes, as Sam and Lucy are left struggling to reckon with the chasm their parents did not bridge.

What Zhang describes in the plight of Lucy and Sam and their parents isn’t new, but it continues to resonate with a contemporary audience. Despite the many generations of Asian Americans who have been born in the United States since the first wave of Chinese immigration, there remains a resistant strain of xenophobia, an unwillingness by white Americans to accept that other American faces—Chinese American faces, Mexican American faces—might not look like theirs but have a home in this country nonetheless. It’s this kind of xenophobia that prevents first- or second-generation Asian Americans from finding comfort in this country, caught between a lack of language that connects you to your family’s roots (imagine being told to go back to your country when English is the only tongue you’ve ever spoken) and the inability to feel welcome in the only place you know as home.

By setting the novel’s narrative in an explicitly historical context, however altered, Zhang reminds readers that Asian Americans and Chinese Americans in particular have helped build this country, that it ought to be the home her protagonists are looking for. For all the elements of history and reality Zhang has decided to change as an author, the racism remains. This should be seen as an opportunity not to bemoan our sullied mythologies of American history but to excavate and illuminate whatever of them exist to this day.

In the last part of the book, which skips ahead five years, Lucy is living in the small, mild settlement of Sweetwater, many miles from the California desert where she and Sam grew up. Sam, meanwhile, is nowhere to be found. Zhang uses the swift passage of time to emphasize how the land—and the novel’s protagonists—have changed. There are mansions now, even in the middle of the previously untamed American West, and Lucy has fallen in with the wealthy young daughter of a gold mine owner. But even in Sweetwater, there’s a reminder that, no matter how good their intentions, some people simply won’t be able to see Chinese Americans as fully human, this time shadowed by the new, ugly specter of male desire that hangs around 17-year-old Lucy. When Sam suddenly returns from years spent adventuring, riding on horseback through the deserts and learning to ignite dynamite in mines, the two head back to California in a journey retracing their previous odyssey. Zhang’s lyrical prose is now activated again but at a brisk, thrilling clip. Sam’s dream is to return to the land across the ocean, the one their mother described in stories, their passage paid in gold.

The end of the book finds Lucy in California, after a series of difficult choices, as construction of the Transcontinental Railroad nears its end. “She hears the cheer that goes through the city the day the last railroad tie is hammered. A golden spike holds track to earth. A picture is drawn for the history books, a picture that shows none of the people who look like her, who built it.” Six hundred and ninety miles of track, two men dead for every mile laid. “The trains have killed an age,” Lucy thinks. But has anything really changed? The dresses women wear don’t have 30 pearl buttons down the back, and gone are the buffalo and the open prairie and the days of the Pony Express. But even today, in the world we all share, it’s possible that one doesn’t walk unnoticed, the fondest dream Lucy had. That with a glance, with spittle or a slur, one can be reminded of the persistent inequity and otherness embedded in our society today.

As I reread Zhang’s novel during lockdown, the characters’ relationship to presentation and perception took on a new significance. I can’t help but remember the knee-jerk, xenophobic fear that led New Yorkers to avoid Chinatown restaurants before Covid-19 arrived in the States or the acts of racist violence—heckling, spitting, an acid attack on a 39-year-old Asian woman in Brooklyn—that seem to have come, whole cloth, out of another era. But was it another era, or is it still the one we live in?

The book’s last line—“She opens her mouth. She wants”—offers a final, hopeful flourish. Zhang’s novel ends on an incomplete sentence, an unspoken desire from Lucy, suggesting the opportunity to continue to write her story, to finish the sentence, to compose a future of what we want when we allow ourselves to want anything.