Thursday, May 27, 2010

Review: Black Hills by Dan Simmons

Here is a summary of Black Hills by Dan Simmons from the Hachette website:

When Paha Sapa, a young Sioux warrior, "counts coup" on General George Armstrong Custer as Custer lies dying on the battlefield at the Little Bighorn, the legendary general's ghost enters him - and his voice will speak to him for the rest of his event-filled life.

 Seamlessly weaving together the stories of Paha Sapa, Custer, and the American West, Dan Simmons depicts a tumultuous time in the history of both Native and white Americans. Haunted by Custer's ghost, and also by his ability to see into the memories and futures of legendary men like Sioux war-chief Crazy Horse, Paha Sapa's long life is driven by a dramatic vision he experienced as a boy in his people's sacred Black Hills. In August of 1936, a dynamite worker on the massive Mount Rushmore project, Paha Sapa plans to silence his ghost forever and reclaim his people's legacy-on the very day FDR comes to Mount Rushmore to dedicate the Jefferson face.

My Review:
This book is full of history from early America from both a native american and a white man's point of view.  Simmons sets this book during the time period of 1936, using various chapters to go back in time as Paha Sapa reflects on different parts of his life. As this book went back in time through different years we were always brought back to 1936, where Paha Sapa was working as a powderman on the Black Hills.  I find that sometimes I follow the story easily with this type of format, but for some reason this book was a bit difficult as the different time periods just didn't seem to flow well.

The book opens with Paha Sapa as a very young boy who happens to stumble upon a battlefield one day.  It so happens that Custer was leading the battle and Paha Sapa comes across his body as Custer was taking his last breath.  At the time Paha Sapa is not aware that the spirit of Custer will enter the young boy's mind and be with him for the rest of his life.  So not only is Paha Sapa given the gift of seeing the future and past of those he touches, but now he has the spirit of Custer within him giving him his opinion about everything.

It is not long after this battle that Paha Sapa is sent away to the Black Hills to complete a traditional ceremony on his own.  After his fasting and smoking of the sacred tribal pipe he is given a vision by the Six Grandfathers of what the Black Hills will one day become.  He is horrified when this vision shows him four heads coming out of the mountain, that soon turn into full-sized giants.  He does not know what to think of his vision at the time, but thinks he realizes the purpose after becoming a powderman for the Mt. Rushmore sculpture when he is older.

We are shown many stages throughout Paha Sapa's life, including when he meets his future wife Rain at the Chicago World's Fair.  I loved this part of the book as it was full of details about the fair, including a very vivid description of Mr. Ferris's Big Wheel!  That must have been an amazing site in it's day.  Later in life, Paha Sapa takes a trip to New York City to visit Custer's wife and takes a trip to the Brooklyn Bridge.  I understand that this is a huge landmark and although it was interesting to read about, it may have been a bit too descriptive to me.  I suppose a builder or engineer would appreciate all of the dimensions and measurements but that just isn't for me.

I do not think it's a secret that books that give me a glimpse into another culture are fascinating to me, and in that aspect this book did not disappoint me.  Since Paha Sapa was a Lakota native american we were able to learn about some of those traditions, superstitions, and even a bit of the language.  The name Paha Sapa is actually the Lakota term for what we call Black Hills. 

As the book is nearing it's end we have a clear vision of what Paha Sapa thinks his purpose on this planet is for.  So the reader can't help but wonder if Paha Sapa will carry out his plan and meet his demise or could he possibly serve another purpose?  With themes of superstition, love,  preservation, and American history this was definitely a fascinating novel.  I must admit that I didn't look forward to opening this book at night but I'm certainly glad that I did.

My Rating: 4/5

Disclosure:  This book was provided to me by Valerie from Hachette in exchange for an honest review.

You can check out more book reviews at Cym Lowell's Book Review Party Wednesday!

1 comment:

Greg Zimmerman said...

Great review! I couldn't agree more that one of the joys of reading is learning about different cultures, historical events, etc. - or really, just learning in general.

I've yet to be brave enough to take on a Simmons novel, but Drood and Black Hills are both high on my list!