A first-time novelist explores timely questions about home and belonging in a story set during the gold rush in a reimagined American West.
Even now, when most of what used to be the Wild West has begun to look like everywhere else—a few big cities spread out among sprawling suburbs full of chain restaurants and strip malls, connected by interstate highways and digital networks—a mythic version of this part of the country endures alongside the reality. That there is a place where anyone can strike it rich or, failing that, at least live free is one of the stories Americans love to tell ourselves. Zhang plays with this duality in her brutally lyrical debut. Lucy and Sam’s family left China for North America with the idea that their father, Ba, would become a prospector. The gold rush is over before they get there, though; he ends up mining coal instead. Sam’s daydreams of being a cowboy exist alongside the naked racism his family endures, but the romantic wish to be an outlaw comes true when Lucy and Sam are forced to flee their small mining village after their father’s death, taking his corpse with them because they lack the means to give it the burial that will let his ghost rest. As they travel through desiccated landscapes littered with the bones of tigers and buffalo, Lucy and Sam meet archetypes we think we know from Westerns, but they are stripped of romance. The journey of these two children—and the backstories of their parents—force us to confront just how white the history we’ve been taught is. Aside from fictions—some fanciful inventions, some hateful lies—about Native Americans, we don’t hear much about the experiences of people of color and immigrants in shaping the West. Zhang asks readers to acknowledge a legacy we have been taught to ignore by creating a new and spellbinding mythology of her own.
Aesthetically arresting and a vital contribution to America’s conversation about itself.