Paha Sapa pulls his hand back sharply but not before he feels the rattlesnake-strike shock of the dying Wasicun's ghost leaping into his fingers and flowing up his arm and into his chest.
–Dan Simmons - Black Hills - c.2010 - pg.3
I’d never read any of Dan Simmons work before picking this one up. I’d heard good things about Drood but that’s about it. So picking this up was a total impulse decision. I hadn’t heard anything about the book, and I don’t really trust blurbs.
In the opening sentence we meet our main protagonist, Paha Sapa, a young Lakota boy who has raced into the middle of the Battle of Little Big Horn in order to go counting coup, there he touches the dying George Custer, the infamous Long Hair, and from then on shares his mind with Custer’s ghost. The book shifts in time, usually within Paha Sapa’s life, but occasionally we get to hear from Custer. He usually talks about his wife, Libby, and the sex they had. To be totally honest this was the one bit I wasn’t that interested in. Okay, so he and his wife have a great sex life, and so…
The rest of the book though, well, it is one I recommend you take a look at.
I found the beginning a little slow. Not uninteresting, just I was trying to find out what I was reading, and the jumps in narration didn’t help with that. But after two or three I got my head around that and after that I really really liked this book. It is one I took slowly, there is a lot of reading in it, and it definitely rewards your attention.
What I especially liked was the fact that Paha Sapa was a real character, not a stock Injun, used by an author to teach us all a lesson. He is, first and foremost, a person, a man, and then a Lakota Sioux. In fact all the Native Americans are people, not stereotypes. As are the whites. One of my pet-hates is the over-romanticisation of aboriginal cultures. It always strikes me as very patronising and “noble savage”-esque. All societies have their flaws and their positives. And no culture is “all good”. As Mr. Custer points out at one stage:
We were talking about how you Sioux, you peace loving Sioux who, I’m sure historians will soon be saying if they aren’t already, fought only to defend their lands and families, used to go to war against everything that moved on two legs. And killed everything with four legs as well. Your warfare was as indiscriminate as your habit of driving hundreds of buffalo off a cliff to enjoy a liver or two …
You Indians were always filthy in your ways, Paha Sapa. We could smell your garbage heaps from twenty miles away. The only thing that made you look and seem noble was the fact that you could keep moving, leaving your buffalo-run heaps of rotting carcasses and giant mounds of stinking garbage behind you.
Of course none of that justifies anything that happened to the Native American people. It’s just that only pointing out the positives of any culture has always struck me as patronising and insulting.
Back to the book! And in the end I think I did love it. For the sweeping story that covers the history of this one man, from the late 1800s right up to the brink of World War II, and in a way describes the history of the USA from one POV. But however large the story might appear it was always the small moments and descriptions that made me really enjoy this book:
He can’t face dinner but packs some sandwiches and sets them in an old burlap bag – he doesn’t want to bring the lunch pail. He realizes how stupid and sentimental this is, willing to blow himself apart but not wanting the lunch pail that Rain used to put food in for for him blown apart. Stupid, stupid, he things, and shakes his aching head. But he leaves the sandwiches in the burlap bag.