The American West of our imaginations, back in the day. Back in the days of cowboys and gold rushes, San Fran brothels and deadly coal mines, horse thieves and mountain men. The American West of our rather limited imaginations, if we grew up with a certain kind of preset range of ideas, photos, movies, stories and dreams in our heads; which, of course, to one degree or another, means pretty much all of us.
But it’s different if. Way different if, we’re of that tribe that ended up dominating all the other tribes, and all too often take it for granted that our stories, movies, ideas and dreams should be the focus, the main narrative, the supposedly real history of our West. Subconsciously, overtly, aggressively, or just kinda sorta cuz it’s supposedly the Way Things Are.
So into that historical (imaginary) space and time comes this amazing new voice — and, folks, her voice is pure magic — and she sings both her own song, from her own (21st century) life experience, and songs we haven’t heard before that must have been audible back then, from “XX42” to “XX67,” as the author puts it, if one had the ears for those songs, if one opened themselves up to others outside their own set.
C Pam Zhang tells the story of another kind of cowboy, or cowgirl, focusing primarily on Chinese-American siblings Lucy and Sam, orphaned (perhaps) at age 12 and 11, on their own in a beautiful, miserable, dangerous, wondrous unnamed territory. The author never names it, exactly, other than when the scene shifts to San Francisco and the shores of the Pacific, but it’s likely set in the new state of California, for the most part. Lucy and Sam’s Ma came from a land across the ocean, also unnamed, but likely China. Ironically, their Ba was born in the American West, too, but no one seems to believe him, such were those preset ideas back then and now.
In interviews, Ms. Zhang has mentioned John Steinbeck and Laura Ingalls Wilder as influences, and you can hear some of that in her prose. But she makes it all her own, sprinkling in bits of Chinese, varying the rhythms, the pacing, the length of the sentences, and shifts yet again when she gives Ba his own monologue, which made me think of another Wilder: Thornton. Our Town, back from the dead, as if Emily and the Stage Manager merged and became a Chinese American gold prospector, telling his “Lucy Girl” his own story, his whys and wherefores, his regrets.
Upon first reading, I’m inclined to call this a “classic,” a book that belongs in the American Canon, already. And I’m guessing a reread will confirm that. Someone also needs to make this into a film, or a limited “peak TV” series. But that might force the filmmaker to leave out the best part: Zhang’s beautiful, original, magical narrative voice.