Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Review of Black Hills by Dan Simmons


Manifest Destiny. It has taken almost two centuries for the rhetoric surrounding the fulfilment of this political ideal to go beyond its initial bluster and be put in proper perspective, even as some of the opposing rhetoric has gone extreme in the other direction—premeditated program for the extermination of the native races at the hands of evil white men. Fingers today pointed in all directions, it all still comes down to the individual and their place in the situation. Enter Dan Simmons’ novel Black Hills (2010), a character study with fingers pointed at the broadest version of human history.

Black Hills is the story of Paha Sapa. Born Lakota in the mid-19th century, he is raised on the open spaces and foothills of what are now called the Dakotas. Clairvoyant, he learns at a young age that by touching people he can see their pasts and futures. Fighting in the Battle of Little Bighorn, Paha Sapa accidentally touches the dying body of General Custer and takes on his ghost. The brash, babbling general living within him for the rest of his life, Paha Sapa must learn to deal with this burden even as the white man’s world to the East overtakes his beloved homeland to the West.


As much as Black Hills is the character study of a Lakota man’s personal view to America’s realization of Manifest Destiny, it is equally a historical novel. Simmons tells the story of Paha Sapa’s life through three different time frames. Interwoven with the aforementioned scenes from Paha Sapa’s youth are his old age as a dynamite blaster working on Mount Rushmore and his middle years adapting to wasicu (white man’s) culture, finding a wife, having a child, and getting by however he can in non-Lakota society. Covering eight decades of time, mid 19th to early 20th century, there is a strong degree of authenticity given the quality of Simmons’ homework.

The area in which Simmons’ homework has greatest impact is perhaps the inclusion of Lakota culture and language. While a lot of Native American life is reduced to stereotype these days, under Simmons pen the Lakota live and breathe in a way that is loosely familiar yet clearly grounded in detailed, historical accounts. Undoubtedly there are a few loud voices who will argue a white man choosing to write from a foreign perspective is cultural appropriation. But just as undoubtedly the discerning reader will recognize that honor, respect, and attempt an at realism are what have primarily gone into crafting Paha Sapa’s story. The contrast between his life among the Lakota and whites is nearly palpable. The description of rituals and tribal behaviors is fascinating, and it is appreciable that Simmons carefully picked and chose which Lakota words to include, particularly for those concepts and ideas sacred to the culture. Looking at the book’s end notes, one has to trust that Simmons transposed these behaviors and words directly from the historical and anthropological information available.

Which means it’s probably a good time to address the issue raised in the introduction of this review: the book’s politics. If I had to say it in a word, I would say they are fatalistically human. Drawing more from ideological backdrops like John Gray’s Straw Dogs or Yuval Harari’s Sapiens rather than any contemporary political rhetoric, Simmons initially seems to set a dichotomous scene, only to nicely contextualize it in the final chapters. Without spoiling matters, the internal conflict between Paha Sapa, who wants to get revenge on the whites for what they did to his tribe, and Custer, the ghost trapped inside of him who trumpets the glories of the American army wiping out the natives, is resolved in a manner that both satisfies the story as well as the broader socio-political interests—at least for those with a mind to the broader horizon of history. The forward looking utopianism that pops briefly up in the final chapter, well, it’s best ignored.

The only other major issues with the novel is the occasional forced exposition. Another way of putting this is, every author who writes fiction set in history must include details of setting to some degree. Some authors just wing these, relying on intuition or basic knowledge, while others go all out, researching, trying to be as accurate as possible. Each approach has its own risks, but certainly in the latter infotainment is a rabbit hole continuously waiting for the author to fall into. Simmons falls on a few occasions. The occasions which relate directly to the motifs of the novel are understandable, e.g. the construction methods used in sculpting Mt. Rushmore, etc. But there are times when the details go overboard. For example, a Paha Sapa visit to NYC takes a side journey through the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, going too far into its dimensions and stats, in turn side-tracking narrative momentum. The Black Hills printing I read clocked in at around 500 pages, of which +/-50 felt like, for example: “I read this interesting little tidbit in Borglund’s biography that’s too good to pass up even though it doesn’t fit directly in the novel.’ Certainly there are readers who enjoy and even want that type of exposition/edutainment, but for me it’s distracting.

Regardless of the non-tangential info dumps (and regardless of the erotic details of Custer’s sex life, natch), Black Hills is broadly a tightly written, well-paced novel. Simmons’ style direct and able to capture affecting details in scenes, it’s impossible for the reader not to finish without feeling they’ve seen life through the eyes of a man who lived in America before and after whites took over, not to mention strong images of an industrializing America. In the very least, nobody will look at Mount Rushmore the same. Paha Sapa is brought to life on the page, just as much as the historical events surrounding him. Black Hills is a solid novel built on a solid premise that should be noteworthy to anyone interested in Lakota/Native American culture and the history of America surrounding their fate.

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