Black Hills

 Dan Simmons

Little, Brown & Co.

Paha Sapa pulls his hand back sharply but not before he feels the rattlesnake-shock of the dying Wasicun’s ghost leaping into his fingers and flowing up his arm and into his chest. The boy lurches back in horror as the ghost burns its way up through his veins and bones like so much surging venom. The Wasicun’s spirit scalds a painful path through the nerves of Paha Sapa’s shoulder and then pours out into his chest and throat … Paha Sapa can taste it. And it tastes like death.

                                                 from  Black Hills



Like the Titanic, the Battle of the Little Bighorn (Custer’s Last Stand) continues to fascinate and maintain a hold on the popular imagination. New books keep coming out about it—most recently Nathaniel Philbrick's The Last Stand and James Donovan's A Terrible Glory—until we wonder what else is there to say that hasn’t already been said.

However, novels are another matter. As E. L. Doctorow (Ragtime) noted, “The historian will tell you what happened. The novelist will tell you what it felt like.”

Dan Simmons' latest novel, Black Hills, tells us what it felt like at the Little Bighorn ... for a Lakota Sioux. On that hot June day in 1876, Paha Sapa, a youth out to prove his bravery, rushes in amid the clutch of blue coats firing at the surrounding Indians to “count coup”—touch one without harming him. But just as he touches a soldier, the man is killed by a bullet to his temple. And in that touch, the dying soldier’s spirit transfers to the Indian boy. The dead soldier is George Armstrong Custer.

Whoa! What a premise for a novel! I just had to see what Simmons did with that.

Well respected for his science fiction (Hyperion Cantos), Simmons charted new ground in 2007 by mixing actual history, Eskimo mythology, and horror in his novel, The Terror, about Sir John Franklin’s 1845 expedition that disappeared in the arctic. Here again Simmons mixes history with his formidable imagination (In the epilogue, we learn that Paha Sapa was a real person.)

The book unfolds like the wandering memory of an old man—in the first chapter he's an eleven year old boy at the Little Bighorn; in the second chapter, he's a 69 year old man working on the Mt. Rushmore project—and we begin to piece together his life, finally seeing it whole.

Playing key roles in that life are Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Wild Bill Cody, and Gutzon Borglum, sculptor of the Mt. Rushmore giants, who like his creations was larger than life.

From time to time, Custer’s spirit breaks in, often with impassioned—even graphic—love letters to his adored wife, Libbie, belying the common belief that no one had sex during the Victorian age.

Although Simmons’ intriguing premise was not as developed as I’d hoped, the novel tells the compelling story of a man who lived through a significant period in American history, and what it felt like.


 This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (August 15 - September 14, 2011). Reprinted with permission.