Black Hills by Dan Simmons
Paha Sapa is a Lakota man who has seen the evolution of the American West from the Battle of Little Big Horn to the carving of Mount Rushmore. What is more, he has been an integral part of all of these things: he counted coup on Custer at Little Big Horn (and ended up haunted/possessed by Custer’s horny ghost – more on that later – for his troubles), performed with Buffalo Bill at the Chicago World’s Fair, and acted as a powderman in the carving of Mount Rushmore. Paha Sapa, known throughout the book also as Billy Slow Horse and Billy Slovak, is not just any Lakota man, though, he has a special gift, or perhaps curse, of being able to see people’s future and past sometimes upon touching them. Perhaps because of this, he is blessed by the Six Grandfathers with a vision that will provide him with a life’s mission.
Okay, so this “Black Hills” sounds really interesting and, actually, it was. However, I would only recommend it with the greatest of reservations. I had a couple really huge problems with it. First, as I mentioned before, Paha Sapa’s haunting/possession/whatever by Custer’s ghost. First of all, by the end of the book I was convinced that nothing about the Custer storyline really added much of significance to the story that Simmons is telling here. Yes, it was partly done to help establish Paha Sapa’s gift, but I think that Simmons established that just fine through other parts of the story, and so this was unnecessary. Really, it all just felt to me like a manipulative ploy, a selling point “OMG! Custer’s ghost invading the body of a Lakota boy at Little Big Horn! The drama!” This book was almost 500 pages and definitely felt too long, the exclusion of the entire Custer storyline would have brought it to just about the length I think would have worked best.
If it wasn’t bad enough that Custer’s entire storyline felt irrelevant (well, that might be too strong, but I really do not think it added anything to the book), there were the ‘letters’ ‘written’ by Custer’s ghost to his wife. Evidently Custer and his wife had quite the sex life, because these letters were pretty explicit. Talk about not adding anything to the story! I assume that the point of these was to establish how much Custer loved his wife, which was relevant to his storyline but not, I think, to the greater purpose of the novel; however, they seemed to me to indicate much more that Custer’s wife was a freaky lady than that they had a true, great, deep love. Oh, and all his letters were in italics – pages and pages of it – because, didn’t I mention?, all the dialogue in the book was in italics.
And that was my second big issue with the book, the dialogue being in italics. I really don’t understand the purpose, other than to do something different. I suppose it could be argued that doing something different like that gave the book a little more of a mystical or memory-laden feel, but mostly it just annoyed me. I was able to get used to reading that, but I pretty much still continued to hate it throughout the book. Probably it wouldn’t have bothered me so much if I wasn’t already annoyed with the whole Custer thing, though.
The really sad thing is, the rest of the book was really pretty good! Okay, I thought the ending was a little bizarre, but Paha Sapa’s story was fascinating, growing up through the Indian wars, the huge push towards agencies and reservations, Buffalo Bill’s show and the Chicago World’s Fair, the carving of Mount Rushmore, all really interesting stuff! I just really wish the Custer stuff hadn’t been in there to detract from the rest of it and it really did detract, the sex letters particularly just pulled me out of the story (I finally decided to only read Custer’s letters until the first time they got explicit, then skip to the next chapter, I’m pretty sure I didn’t miss anything important). This book had so much potential, I think it was really a missed opportunity. If it hadn’t been for the Custer stuff, I’d probably give it a mental rating of 4 or even 4.5, even with the italics. Now I think it would be about a 3, because after about page 100 the story took off and got interesting, but it just wasn’t enough to redeem it for me.
I would recommend this only to those with a strong interest in the history of the American West and the interaction between whites and Native Americans. Even then, I’d say be prepared for some randomness.