In June of 1876, a gifted young Lakota Indian boy named Paha Sapa touches a dying white soldier at the Battle of Little Big Horn, little realizing that he is "counting coup" on the fallen General Custer himself. In that moment, the boy's life changes forever, as the ghost of the slain war leader mysteriously enters his soul, where it will reside, speaking to him at odd moments, for the next sixty-plus years.
Black Hills comes from the vivid imagination of Dan Simmons, author of previous lengthy best-selling historical novels The Terror and Drood. The book is long, entertaining, and wonderfully descriptive, though it lapses into excessive wordiness at times. The epic story encompasses seven decades of Paha Sapa's life and treats the reader to diverse settings ranging from the Black Hills of South Dakota to the "White City" of the Chicago World's Fair. Told in a nonlinear fashion, much of it in present tense, the story can be difficult to follow, particularly toward the beginning of the book before the reader is accustomed to the back-and-forth, decade-skipping flow of the narrative.
The main plot centers around the construction of the Mount Rushmore memorial, carved into a mountain sacred to the Lakota tribe. Paha Sapa signs on as a powderman on the blasting crew, hoping to fulfill a destiny revealed to him as a child in a vision: to stop the wasicus--the white "fat takers"--from destroying the Black Hills. Other story lines include Paha Sapa's wonderful coming of age as a Lakota visionary, a too-brief romantic interlude in Chicago, and the underlying saga of America's growing-up years through the early twentieth century.
The book's key strength, aside from Simmons's often beautiful descriptions of vivid settings, is its imaginative retellings of actual events, most notably the construction of Mount Rushmore. Simmons tips his hat to other key historical events as well, including the building of the Brooklyn Bridge in a well-researched and fascinating chapter. Lakota culture, language, and spirituality is explored throughout.
The book contains a fair amount of language, though most of it fits the settings and characters. Less appropriate are a number of bizarrely and unnecessarily explicit accounts of marital intimacy from the point of view of Custer's ghost.
Unfortunately, like many long books, Black Hills fails to end when it should; the last fifty pages are a strange departure from the lyrical beauty of the rest of the book, as the author launches into a seemingly agenda-driven tirade against humanity's affects on nature.
Overall, however, the book is highly enjoyable and well worth the not inconsiderable time it takes to complete. Flawed yet replete with flashes of brilliance, the book will entertain, educate, and move readers as it delves into the always strained and occasionally beautiful relationship between a nation's past and its future.