The Past Comes Alive in a Ghost Town

The story of one abandoned settlement lends some historical context to C Pam Zhang’s gold rush–era novel.

built in 1892, this wooden powerhouse helped supply compressed air for mining operations near crystal, colorado
Built in 1892, this wooden powerhouse helped supply compressed air for mining operations near Crystal, Colorado.

C Pam Zhang’s How Much of These Hills Is Gold—the first selection of the California Book Club—plays with the past in imaginative ways. Set in the American West during a gold rush, the novel presents history as a ghost, writes John Freeman, the club’s host. He writes, “We never hear the word ‘California’ in this novel, and it’s nearly 100 pages before the word ‘gold’ is seen.”

That ghostly past comes alive in many abandoned settlements in the West. Readers who’d like to know more about them can read Laura Fraser’s piece in Alta about one such town in the Colorado Rockies.

“I’ll call the town Inez, instead of its real name,” Fraser writes, “since the folks who live in that solitary spot are there for a reason: they don’t like being around a lot of people, and they aren’t interested in attracting tourists. Many of them are my relatives, too, and I’d like to stay on speaking terms.”

Fraser concludes, “There is something about ghost towns that makes you conscious of the passage of time, and aware of your connections to history. The way the towns are situated, flimsy structures set amidst huge, impartial mountains, makes you aware, too, of how fleeting human time is…. It’s one of the only places, with no cell or wireless service, where I can truly disconnect, gaze at a granite mountain face or a white rushing river, and breathe.”

You can sign up here for the California Book Club. It’s free. Zhang and Freeman will discuss How Much of These Hills Is Gold at the first meeting of the club, on October 15, at 5 p.m. Pacific time.

John McMurtrie edits for McSweeney’s Publishing and the literary travel magazine Stranger’s Guide.
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