Dan Simmons continues to amaze me. He initially made his name in the horror genre writing classics like CARRION COMFORT and SUMMER OF NIGHT. He has since succeeded in several different genres, from science fiction to hard-boiled crime to historical mysteries. Most recently, he has re-imagined the ill-fated voyage of the HMS Terror and the doomed Franklin Expedition of 1845 in THE TERROR. In 2009, he had his biggest success to date with a novel that created a fictional backstory for Charles Dickens’s last, unfinished work, THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD, with his bestseller DROOD.
With the release of BLACK HILLS, Simmons shows once again why he is one of the most diverse and important novelists of this generation. In the Sioux language, “Black Hills” literally translates to Paha Sapa. The dual importance of this name reflects the title character, a young Sioux warrior who resides with his tribe in the Black Hills of South Dakota. The novel’s opening paragraph finds him feeling the ghost of the dying “wasicun” General George Custer leaping into his body amidst the tumult of the infamous Battle of Little Big Horn.
Paha Sapa counts coup upon the body of Custer at the moment the spirit leapt from one vessel to another. In the Native American tongue, counting coup is the winning of prestige in battle by acts of bravery in the face of the enemy. In the case of Paha Sapa, though he was not responsible for the death blow that claimed General Custer, he was the first Sioux there to stand over the body of the long-haired enemy of his tribe. Paha Sapa was no ordinary Sioux --- he possessed a unique power that allowed him to see the future and the death of those he touched. It was such a vision that caused him to be marked by the legendary warrior, Crazy Horse, and flee his Black Hills home to make a life for himself away from his people.
Paha Sapa does not understand how his power works; all he knows is that he now must travel the rest of his life with the ghost of General George Custer inhabiting his being and sharing his consciousness with this sworn enemy of his people. It does not help matters that he does not understand the wasicun (the literally translated “white man’s”) tongue and therefore cannot recognize the endless lamenting Custer speaks through his mind about his lost love, Libbie. The novel jumps around in time and devotes several chapters to Custer’s laments involving his wife, told from within the deep recesses of Paha Sapa’s mind.
As Paha Sapa eventually settles in amongst white society, he learns the English language and then can understand and interpret all that Custer’s ghost has to say. Because of the additional vitality provided by the ghost of Custer, he leads an extraordinary life. The novel takes him from the Black Hills of South Dakota to the legendary town of Deadwood, the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, and eventually the construction of the national monument, Mount Rushmore, which is built upon the land of the Six Grandfathers in the heart of his Black Hills birthplace.
BLACK HILLS infuses history and fiction, and many legendary characters are included along the way. In particular, there is one very telling passage when Paha Sapa meets with Henry Adams, the American journalist who seems to be able to see through Paha Sapa’s façade and recognizes the ghost rider he is carrying along with his own soul. He meets the woman who eventually becomes his wife, Rain, while at the Chicago “White City” World’s Fair of 1893, and they take a ride on the new contraption called a Ferris wheel. Their marriage produces a son, Robert, who eventually dies on the battlefield in World War I representing the United States.
Tragically, Rain is struck down by illness early in her marriage to Paha Sapa, who now must raise Robert alone. He is constantly visited in dreams by Rain, and her wisdom --- marked by her partial Native American heritage --- guides him along in the same manner that Custer clings to the love and strength gathered from Libbie. It is when Paha Sapa, now considerably older, takes his manual labor skills and puts them to work for Mount Rushmore sculptor Gutzon Borglum that he believes he finds the end to the path his life has led him. He sees the construction of Mount Rushmore, depicting four of the United States’ greatest presidents, upon the land of the Six Grandfathers in his Black Hills as a desecration of all that remains of his Sioux heritage. Driven by this feeling, he knows that he must bring down this monument and chooses to do so on a day when the fourth and final face (that of Theodore Roosevelt) is unveiled at a ceremony hosted by then-President Franklin Roosevelt.
Torn by his past and Sioux heritage and inevitably touched from the grave through the family he never knew he had --- that of his late son, Robert --- Paha Sapa eventually realizes what his true path is and recognizes what it will take to put both his and General Custer’s souls at peace. Dan Simmons has created an epic story full of historical figures and events, and set them to life through one of the most unique narrators ever found in modern fiction. BLACK HILLS is a compelling and powerful read that continues to exhibit the endless talents of its author.
Reviewed by Ray Palen on December 22, 2010