America is defined by its ghosts. The displacement and slaughter of the Native American population is a guilt that’s been justified, rationalized, lamented, and debated, until now the trick isn’t so much finding the right response as it is finding a response that hasn’t already been beaten into the ground. In his new book Black Hills, Dan Simmons does a solid job of facing this problem by trying to make the sins of the past as personal as possible. His main character, a Lakota Indian born in the second half of the 19th century, sees his people killed, and watches as his native land is overrun by white men and powerful machines. It’s strong writing and research from Simmons, in a narrative that spans one of the most important times in American history. It’s just too bad the ending nearly undoes all his good works.
In 1876, an 11-year-old Lakota boy named Paha Sapa (whose name translates to the place he was born in, Black Hills) attempts to count coup on a dying soldier. When he touches the body, Paha is invaded by the spirit of George Armstrong Custer, whose constant monologues about his lost love will be Paha’s companion for decades. Sixty years later, Paha is part of the crew laying charges and blowing up rock to carve faces into the granite sides of Mount Rushmore. The mountain is sacred to Paha’s people, and after a long, discouraging life, Paha has determined to destroy the sculptured visages of Washington, Lincoln, and Jefferson.
Hills jumps around in time, following Paha as he flees for his life from the warrior Crazy Horse, woos his quarter-Lakota bride, and suffers Custer’s tediously explicit sexual longings. His ability to touch the skin of another and receive that person’s life in a moment is a smart narrative trick for expanding perspective while maintaining a single focus, but it sometimes plays like a cheat. Even worse, the book’s climax attempts to justify this ability, and explain the story’s moderate spiritual bent, in a way that doesn’t sit well with the even-handed realism that precedes it. Hills works in its smaller moments, detailing the insane working conditions of the Rushmore crew, or Custer’s disappointment in his career-widow wife. The novel would’ve been better served by a little less ambition.