I don’t read, or watch, a lot of Westerns. The Old West, as a setting and genre, has just never been one that holds a lot of interest for me. But as time went and I read more and more reviews for this one, I realized it might be a look at this location and time that was just different enough that I might want to check it out.
“Certain, now, of the truth she’s suspected. New places there may be, new languages – but there are no new stories. No lands left wild where men haven’t touched, and touched.”
After Ba dies, with Ma already gone, Lucy and Sam are left with no choice but to set off on their own. At only 11 and 12 years old, they fight to properly bury Ba, to find their places/futures in the world and to settle their own complicated relationship. Set against a background of the rolling, wild hills and prospecting fortunes made and broken of the “Old West,” the sisters each do what they must as they reach for their separate dreams of home.
Well, I have little to no experience with Westerns, as I mentioned. (Other than finally watching Tombstone about a year ago because my little brother’s obsession with Val Kilmer that began there really had me curious…I ended up being as uninterested in it as I’d anticipated). But I feel like I can pretty reasonably say that this is very unlike most other stories of the genre, both in style/tone and in subject. First, the writing. I can see why Zhang’s prose has been so widely lauded. The sparsely poetic writing has a sort of mysticism and unreality to it that matches the wild environment Lucy and Sam are exploring. It lends a vibe of mystery and folktale to the storytelling that swirls around the reader in a really unique aura. I have to be honest here and say that this sort of metaphysical lyricism, especially with the focus on nature and the environment (a veritable ode to a landscape), is just not my favorite. And I am glad that I had already gotten my hands on the audiobook version, because the narrators (who were phenomenal) did a great job bringing that vibe to life while simultaneously helping me move through the writing at a pace that kept me invested in the story without getting too lost in the language. It’s a personal thing, but do note that, if you are a reader who is not as into slow-moving verse, prepare yourself appropriately to read this one. However, I do also need to note that despite personal preferences, I cannot deny that that ending was perfectly crafted (lingually and in context). And it left me bursting with a longing and want to mirror Lucy’s own. It was visceral and truly made me say “damn” out loud.
Second, the body of work in/on the Wild West, that I have been exposed to, focuses almost entirely on the lawlessness and the “heroics” of the [white] sheriffs keeping the peace by protecting people [white settlers/colonizers] from the [insert nonwhite group here] threats. Zhang takes these underrepresented perspectives and gives just a little glimpse of their reality – primarily the Chinese immigrants shipped across the ocean as indentured servant/slave labor to build railroads, with recognition of others, like the Indigenous populations removed from their own lands, and the way they were otherized, becoming one with a land in a nation that would never see them as a true part of its people. The focus on the land and its resources belonging to those who lived and worked it, yet being stolen away by those with more power, was a refreshing re-shaping of this romanticized era.
And here are a few other thoughts I jotted down while readying that I want to share. They’re mostly in line with what’s been said, but disjointed enough (as I said, I jotted them down while reading) that they didn’t fit well anywhere else. In any case, this entire novel, from the experiences/lives of Ma and Ba down to the disparate ways that Lucy and Sam approached their lives, this was a full-on meditation on the dreams of immigrants, and children of immigrants, in America. There is, as there always is, the ever present “promise” of finding their place if they just work hard enough and forget enough of where they came from to manage the [impossible] task of assimilation. And with that, there comes the ever-present heaviness of the weight of dreams unfulfilled, of internalized otherness, of the “where are you from” based on appearance alone, of fetishization and non-acceptance that runs deep in the marrow of the country. This is shown both in “normal” ways and paralleled gorgeously by the similarities inherent in the prospecting for gold lifestyle and dreams. And along with all that, Zhang also manages to include a fairly profound look at the difference between the expectations of and ways of moving in the world for men and women. And on every page, the imagery and language that connects Ma’s heritage to the golden hills of their birthplace, the buffalo bones and tiger foot-prints and more, is woven together so skillfully. Zhang takes these literary pieces and asks, over and over, what makes a home a home and presents the reader with the bittersweet reality of feeling that one belongs in a place but not being seen/accepted the other that reside there too.
This is still not a genre I love. I probably won’t seek out more. But Zhang’s reclaiming of, bearing witness to, the buried truths in this time and space – in a way that speaks also to how these moments shape so much of the present racial and land-owning reality of this country – is deeply important to have experienced. At one point, Zhang writes of the combination of “violence and bitterness and hope” that killed Ba and, for me, that combination also created the cornerstone reading experience of this novel, this story that took me on an affecting journey of family and home and want.
A few highlighted passages for you to enjoy:
“Was it braver to move loud or to stand quiet…?”
“Ba said what a man knows to be true is different from what he reads.”
“…later she’ll blame the cost of that meat, and the long desperate days worked to pay that cost, and the men who set that price, and the men who built the mines that paid so little, and the men who emptied the earth and choked the streams and made the days so dry, and the claiming of the land by some that leaves others clutching only dusty air…”
“I don’t see how you can claim to own a place and treat it so poor…”
“Point is, there’s always been gold in these hills. You just had to believe.”
“I grew up knowing I belonged to this land, Lucy girl. You and Sam do too, never mind how you look. Don’t let any man with a history book tell you different.”
“Too often truth ain’t in what’s right […] sometimes it’s in who speaks it. Or writes it.”
“What makes a ghost a ghost? Can a person be haunted by herself?”