It was time for one of my visits to family in the Black Hills of South Dakota, so I decided to pull Dan Simmons’ Black Hills off the shelf.
I bought it a couple of years in a Hill City gallery. (You may know Hill City as the site of the Black Hills Institute of Geology which was at the center of a custody battle over a T. Rex skeleton.) I’ve been impressed enough by the few Dan Simmons works I’ve read — Song of Kali, Lovedeath, Carrion Comfort, and The Terror — to decide, eventually, to read the rest.
Review: Black Hills by Dan Simmons, 2011.
Like Frederik Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal, this is a thriller whose plot is bounded by the historical record. In the Forsyth novel, we know the Jackal’s plot is not going to succeed. Charles de Gaulle is not going to be assassinated. And here we know that our hero, Paha Sapa (“Black Hills” in Lakota) is not going to destroy Mount Rushmore.
It is the sort of historical novel in which our hero careens through some iconic and important historic events or hears about them secondhand: the Battles of the Little Bighorn and Wounded Knee, the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, and the building of the Brooklyn Bridge.
In the first sentence, the ghost of Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer enters Paha Sapa’s mind. That historical figure, who gets several chapters of his own which range from erotic remembrances of his wife Libbie to a poignant observation that her life was wasted in dedication to his memory, infests Paha Sapa’s head for decades. Paha Sapa has a peculiar psychic talent that allows him, upon touching someone, to know their personal history and future.
This runs him afoul of another historical figure, Crazy Horse, portrayed here unsympathetically, indeed likened to the Nazis in one passage. The ten year old Paha Sapa flees to his name sake to receive a sacred vision. There, on the Six Grandfathers, what we know as Mount Rushmore, he receives a vision that compels him, eventually, to plot the destruction of Gutzon Borglum’s work.
The character of Borglum is one of the highlights here. Brilliant, manipulative and with secrets of his own, he works with Paha Sapa on the Rushmore project.
The story careens back and forth in time in Paha Sapa’s life, the tension escalating in the final third. At novel’s end, the story that begins with blood shed ends in sort of a reconciliation between white and Indian.
Simmons’ novel does not subscribe to any of the false pieties regarding American Indians: peaceful, egalitarian, and wise stewards of the environment. Indeed, some of those notions are challenged.
It is a surprisingly suspenseful novel and will probably not only appeal to historical fiction fans (which I am not) as well as fans of historical fantasy.
Expanded Thoughts With Spoilers And Politics and History
That’s the short, impersonal, nonpolitical review.
The truth is I was not looking forward to this book.
I was expecting a large helping of white guilt which Simmons doesn’t deliver. Specifically, I feared Simmons would use the metaphor of blaster Paha Sapa destroying the white icon of Mount Rushmore to argue for the return of the Black Hills to the Indians. Given that I spent most of my younger years in the Black Hills and go back there often, I am, unsurprisingly, not keen on that notion.
A brief historical detour is in order.
The 1868 Fort Laramie treaty between the United States government and the Lakota Sioux gave them a large part of what is now western South Dakota. That included the Black Hills.
That treaty was renegotiated in 1877. Custer’s 1874 expedition to the Black Hills led to the official announcement of gold there. Whites rushed in. In February 1877, the Lakota Sioux “ceded” the Black Hills to the U.S. government. Trouble was, it was an illegal ceding of the land since not all the parties required by the Laramie treaty consented. On those grounds, the U.S. agreed to pay the Lakota $102 million in reparations. The Lakota refused the money and still demand the “return of the Black Hills”. As far as I know, the money is still sitting in the bank drawing interesting. (All this information is courtesy of Bob Lee’s The Black Hills After Custer which I’ll be reviewing next and is actually in Simmons bibliography.)
Now, to be fair, I don’t believe the Lakota plan on kicking every white out of the Black Hills. As far as I know, they want federal land there returned to them and compensation for land now in private hands. And there is no historical or legal doubt that the Laramie Treaty was broken by the U.S.
But there’s also no doubt that none of the individuals who violated the treaty or suffered from that violation are alive today. I believe that there should be a statute of limitations on the crimes of history.
Simmons obliquely alludes to the issue of returning the Black Hills only at the end of the novel.
This novel is, I would argue, not a novel of white-Indian violence or recrimination. It is a novel of reconciliation.
It starts in blood, in the middle of the Battle of the Greasy Grass aka the Little Bighorn aka Custer’s Last Stand aka the Custer Massacre. The boy Paha Sapa touches Custer as he emits his last breath. For the rest of this life, Custer will be in his head, first a presence murmuring in a foreign tongue. After Paha Sapa learns English at a Jesuit school, he will be a presence in the Indian’s head, sometimes shunned, sometimes accessed, and, at the end, an argumentative presence. (Custer insists, in one of his monologue chapters, that he isn’t really a “ghost”. Paha Sapa just has the ability to somehow carry simulacra of people’s mind and memories in his head. He hopes that Paha Sapa will finally release him into welcome oblivion.)
Custer is the white warrior. And Simmons treats him surprisingly sympathetically. As he notes in his Acknowledgements, Custer is a great polarizing figure. Here the convincing argument is made that the Battle of the Little Bighorn was not a stupid action on Custer’s part. In other engagements against the Indians, Custer split his forces in the face of a larger force and won.
On that day, though, Crazy Horse was present and the Lakota did not use their old tactics.
Crazy Horse, the Indian warrior, doesn’t take up a lot of the novel’s space, but he cuts a vivid swathe when he does. He demands that Paha Sapa, whose visionary powers are known in the tribe, tell him of his future. Paha Sapa refuses though he knows that future won’t last long.
When he reads of the Nazi regime, Paha Sapa thinks back on Crazy Horse:
Paha Sapa wonders if Hitler and these Nazis could be the wasichu [white] version of young Crazy Horse and the other heyokas — sacred clowns, Dreamers of the Thunder, spirit-possessed servants of the Thunder Beings whose failure to perform their duty meant death by lightening blast.
… If Hitler, Goebbels, and the rest of those unfunny clowns really are wasichu Thunder Dreamers, that would explain a lot, thinks Paha Sapa, including their obsession with rubbing out all of their real and perceived enemies.
Paha Sapa never really wanted to be a warrior but a holy man like his adopted father. Indeed, his inability to be murderous ultimately dooms his plan to destroy Mount Rushmore — as Custer scornfully tells him. He doesn’t kill Borglum when he has a chance. At the climax of the novel, when Simmons seems to enter into the alternate history world, when Mount Rushmore seems to be blown to bits in front of President Franklin Roosevelt there to dedicate in August 1936, it is Paha Sapa’s regret that he has miscalculated his dynamite charges and will kill some in the crowd below.
But his career as a holy man seems at an end shortly after his vision atop the Six Grandfathers. He loses a sacred pipe, is captured by Crow army scouts, and never sees his Indian family again.
But, under the Jesuits, he learns to love white literature, particularly Dickens and Homer (who have their own Simmons’ novels). He has trouble contemplating vandalism, even of Borglum’s work which he feels he must blow up to save his people.
But, living in the white world as a cowboy and miner and attraction in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, he also thinks that race lacks a true religion and spirituality.
Until he goes to the Chicago World’s Fair. There, looking at the vast steam engines and generators he realizes science and technology are the true “secret powers” and “secret gods” of the whites. He also has a wonderful encounter, one of the book’s highlights, with philosopher and novelist Henry Adams.
A similar moment comes years later atop the Brooklyn Bridge, its wonders told to him by another dynamite man who worked on the project. Paha Sapa again sees the spirits he saw in his boyhood atop the Six Grandmothers.
Perhaps it is his duty to do what the Ghost Dance of 1890 could not: drive the whites out of their land and return the buffalo.
Paha Sapa may be increasingly involved in the white world, but he remains, at heart, a Lakota. But, if Paha Sapa the man fails in his actions, he succeeds via his blood, his genetic heritage.
He meets and marries a missionary’s daughter, a half-Lakota woman. Though their love affair gets less wordage, is less vivid than that of Custer and his wife, there is a wonderful moment where they walk along the beautiful — and artificial and white created — Sylvan Lake in the Black Hills. (Simmons covers that and other Black Hills settings used in the book in a useful “literary travel guide”.) It is not just a romantic moment but a symbol of how nature can be manipulated for use and beauty in a way never approached by the Lakota.
Paha Sapa’s son Robert represents a synthesis, in nature and nurture, between the white and Lakota worlds. He is very promising, destined for a great career in art or science or politics helping the Lakota.
And he dies of the Spanish Flu, in Europe, after World War One ends.
Borglum’s ultimate secret, foreshadowed in retrospect, is that he shares Paha Sapa’s power. He foresaw Paha Sapa’s plot — and the inability of his character to carry it out.
In something of a spiritual denouement, Paha Sapa leaves Mount Rushmore and returns to the novel’s beginning, the Greasy Grass. There he resolves to kill himself, anguished that he is alone and has failed his people.
There, in a highly coincidental moment that Simmons made work for me, his salvation comes. With his revolver to his head, a woman comes up to him and reveals that she is the daughter-in-law he never knew he had and also introduces his granddaughter.
Before she arrives, Custer finally speaks up after a silence of years, indeed he has been silent since observing the sad sight of Libbie in 1936. He rightfully scorns the idea that the Sioux were peaceful before whites arrived. He reminds Paha Sapa that the Sioux dispossessed other tribes, went on bloody raids just for the fun of it. He talks of the squalor and stench of their camps. Yet, having lived with each other for 63 years, they have a grudging reconciliation with each other.
And then, after his unknown family shows up, Paha Sapa has a final vision. It recapitulates the geologic history of the Great Plains and Black Hills and their near future.
It is the Ghost Dance’s promise realized. The whites have left the plains, the Lakota have returned with the buffalo. Paha Sapa’s descendants will use white science to realize a Lakota vision: the Pleistocene Megafauna Rewilding Project. It is a vast area of America repopulated with genetic reconstructions of extinct megafauna, a monorail going through parts for tourists to gawk, and place where a few, chosen by lottery, can live and visit — if they forsake modern, white tools.
It’s a scientifically plausible vision. I can imagine some desiring it, and Simmons does not shrink from realizing that a true Lakota culture is not compatible with white technology. Indeed, I’d point out that even the great horse cultures of the Great Plains were only possible by whites introducing the invasive species of the horse.
That’s the great arc of the novel.
Some other points of interest are Simmons successfully evoking the landscape of the Black Hills — unlike, say, S. P. Somtow’s Moon Dance. It’s not a matter of adjectives but an accumulation of detail from the Cretaceous Hogback that surrounds the Hills to Bear Butte and Wind Cave, both sacred Lakota sites.
I’ve always thought that Mount Rushmore was ripe for some sort of fantastic use given how long it will last. I am aware, however, of few stories that use it. Simmons also talks about the little known Hall of Records Borglum also wanted to build at Mount Rushmore.
Simmons is a victim of his sources on Mount Rushmore. He completely omits any mention of Luigi Del Blanco. His contribution to the project was perhaps second only to Borglum’s.
The subject of how the American experience with Indians has influenced science fiction and fantasy probably would need at least a couple of books.
I’ll end with three mentions on the matter.
In his The Case of the Toxic Spell Dump, Harry Turtledove argues that European culture was superior to that of the American Indian because it could support more people on the same chunk of land.
Vernor Vinge’s “Conquest By Default” is a commentary, indirectly, on the cultural assassination that technologically superior cultures commit against the inferior.
And, Frank L. Baum, The Wizard of Oz author and one time resident of South Dakota, once suggested it would have better to truly commit genocide against the Sioux rather than consign them to the pathetic life of the reservation. (Incidentally, in regards to the events of 1890 at Wounded Knee, Simmons opts for the Massacre version with the 7th Cavalry’s casualties the result of friendly fire and ricocheting bullets.)