Friday, August 20, 2010
Black Hills by Dan Simmons
For those who haven't yet heard, Black Hills is a novel about a Lakota (Sioux) named Paha Sapa, whose name translates as Black Hills. Paha Sapa learns at a very early age that he has certain gifts, but they are so strange he tells only his grandfather. One of these gifts is the ability to see into the future as well as back to the past, and to have out-of-body experiences where his spirit flies high above the earth. When Paha Sapa is ten years old, he sneaks onto the battlefield at Greasy Grass (Little Bighorn) to count coup (touch the dead bodies of enemy soldiers). He happens to touch the body of Longhair (Custer) at the moment of his death, and, in that fateful moment, Custer's ghost enters Paha Sapa and remains in his head for pretty much his entire life. (Sounds a bit farfetched, I know, but it works in the story.)
The main plot centers around the building of the Mount Rushmore memorial, which is being carved into The Six Grandfathers, a mountain sacred to the Lakotas. Paha Sapa is helping to create the monument, working as a "powderman" and blasting huge chunks from the mountain to form the giant faces. His work on the monument is particularly interesting because the building of Mt. Rushmore monument was shown by The Six Grandfathers themselves to Paha Sapa as a vision, along with other incredible and disturbing future events, in his coming-of-age vision-quest.
Subplots include Paha Sapa's mystical coming of age as a Lakota visionary and the demise of the Free People, his time as an actor in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show at the White City (Chicago's World's Fair), the particularly poignant saga of his family life. Running beneath it all is the story of America's manifest destiny-westward growth through the early twentieth century.
I guess many readers loathed the voice of Custer, and, while I admit I found it irritating, I believe it was necessary to the story and for what Simmons was trying to do ~ which I think was at least partly to show the differences and similarities of the Americans and the Lakotas. Paha Sapa himself was a study in dichotomy. For example, he was Lakota to his soul and despised the treacherous Crow for treating with the white man, yet he himself did things to help the white man that appeared diametrically opposed to the well-being of the Lakota Nation.
There was a lot of jumping around in time, which I've heard from some was off-putting, at least at the beginning of the novel. I think it must have been easier to comprehend on audio than it would have been in print, since I never had any problem knowing where I was in time. Although I listened to most of the book on my iPod, somehow I forgot to load the last CD and so had to read the last bit in print form. While it's true I missed listening the reader pronounce the Native American words, I otherwise enjoyed it just as much in print as as an audiobook.
I'm not sure whether Black Hills is going to be a best-seller or win any prizes, but I thought it was pretty wonderful. I have been unable to stop thinking about it from pretty much the first CD and, after I finished it just last night, I dreamed about it. To me, that is the sign of a good read.