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Book Review: Black Hills by Dan Simmons

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In 1876 Paha Sapa, a young boy of 10 is at Little Bighorn, during the massacre and carnage of Custer’s Last Stand. His future desire is to become a wicasa wakan, a holy man. He has a gift of sight that enables him to see the future through his sense of touch. Having no heart for fighting, nor an innate will to become a warrior, he counts coup in battle, touching Custer at exact the moment he dies.

Immediately he fears something has changed, and with trepidation and unease he knows the dead man’s ghost has seeped into his body. A lifetime of competitive chatter begins for Paha Sapa as his mind rattles with the dialogue of General Custer, his beliefs, feelings, opinions, love life, and memories. Throughout the book, Simmons allows his voice to be heard through Paha Sapa and his uninvited ghost resident, Custer.

As a future wakan, Paha Sapa must embark on his vision quest and it is there he is terrorized by the dismal and shocking views that shape his people’s future: the ravages to the earth, the end to the buffalo and the Sioux known as the “Natural Free Human Beings.”

The story alternates between two time periods. Fluctuating between Paha Sapa’s early life in 1876 at the battle of Little Bighorn, to the 1930s, when Paha Sapa is a dynamite man working for Gutzon Borglum on the famous Mt. Rushmore in South Dakota. It is during this time period, dying of cancer, that Paha Sapa sets in motion a plan to blow up the colossal monuments in stone. In his mind the stones are an insult to his people’s culture and life. It is not the first time he has seen the Black Hills heads emerge out of the mountains, as they were a part of his vision quest when he was a boy.

Historical events depicted in the novel provide a fascinating setting as Paha Sapa ages over seven decades. His presence is there for the building of the Brooklyn Bridge and he attends the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 where he marvels at Mr. Ferris’ great wheel. He views the ravages of the Dust Bowl and becomes a key worker when the heads of stone are carved out of the Black Hills, commonly known as Mr. Rushmore. Simmons uses an impressive bibliography of noteworthy sources that also provides further suggestive reading.

The text is in italics when characters are speaking. This is awkward at first to get used to, especially when Custer’s ghost is speaking. Custer’s letters to his wife were oddly uncomfortable intimacies that could have been eliminated. Black Hills is appropriately presented at a time when go green is in vogue and Earth’s survival depends on our corrective action.

It is cautionary tale, to embrace. It is a call to action for those who read Black HIlls to act, to solve and implement plans for the future to stave off what seems to be the inevitable demise of our planet. Reflectively unique both disturbing and hopeful, Simmons has tantalized the reader with a wonderful story from our past, while questioning the future. Highly recommended.

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