Dan Simmons with great expectations and an open mind. He never goes where I expect him to go with a story, and the resulting adventure always is worthy. Black Hills was no exception.
This complex novel begins with 10-year-old Sioux boy Paha Sapa counting coup among the dead at Little Big Horn. That in itself is a paradigm shift: wasichu, or non-Indians, consider it a defeat — but for the young boy, it is a victory. This is the first of many perception shifts readers will experience with this young boy as his life progresses.
This book begins with a bang, as the young boy touches a dying, long-haired blonde man, and winds up with the ghost/spirit of "Long Hair" in his mind, babbling incoherently (from the perspective of a boy who doesn't speak the ghost's language). Coupled with his new-found ability to view the future and perceive the past of a person by merely touching the other person's hand, the young boy has many talents that set him apart from his fellow Natural Free Human Beings, as they call themselves.
Paha Sapa is on the cusp of his life, and his people are at the cusp of their existence. The year the story begins is 1865, and the story is peppered throughout with Sioux words and phrases. (I have to admit, I didn't know how to pronounce them and didn't even try.) Some was educational, like the assignment of names, the name of some months ("Moon of the Brown Leaves") and how nouns were often literal descriptions (such as small-vision-backward-touching, his description of Paha Sapa's talent). Other times, it was more ponderous, as though Simmons wanted to make sure readers were aware of just how much research went into the book. Thankfully, only occasional words in Sioux were used, though at times even that got ponderous — using the language can serve as an anchor or a distraction.
Paha Sapa is not the only narrator in this novel. General George Armstrong Custer, is the "Long Hair" whose spirit occupies the boy's mind with what he hears as incoherent ramblings — at least, until Paha Sapa learns English when he is a little older. Custer's ramblings are very personal remembrances of the intimacies between himself and his wife. Very personal. If I was Paha Sapa, I'd be scarred for life. (I kind of am, anyway.)
The story weaves from Little Big Horn to the Black Hills to the World's Fair in Chicago to the reservation/agency to New York City, from Paha Sapa to Billy Slovak to Billy Slow Horse, from 1876 to 1923, from 1917 to 1893 to 1936. The reader gets subtle but important clues that are easy to follow to know where and who and why, and the shifts become second nature to the reader.
Aside from the pervert Custer, the characters we meet through Paha Sapa are memorable: Rain, the daughter of a Midwestern preacher; Robert, a young boy whose life is intertwined with the man who reveals his true name to only a few; Guzton Borglum, the personality and artist behind Mount Rushmore; Limps-a-Lot, the elderly Sioux who raises Paha Sapa; Crazy Horse, who should never ask for the very thing he doesn't need; Bill Cody, whose relationship proves more complex than the story at first suggests.
The most memorable is Paha Sapa, who tells the tale and whose life we witness. We share his inner and public lives, both rich and memorable. As the clues build, I wanted to know more immediately, but had to wait patiently for the master storyteller to reveal in time the magic of the story and characters. There are some lovely moments, some painful ones, and more than a few amazing unexpected developments that make this book so memorable that I spent days just flipping through it, landing on yet one more "really good part" I wanted to experience again.
Readers also experience the "end" of the Wild West, with the corralling of the Natural Free Human Beings (and others), the "sport" of killing majestic buffalo and leaving their bodies on the prairie, the quashing of the spirit of an intensely independent people (and an interesting perspective of the hierarchy of the plains), the prejudice against that which is "other" and how the spirit endures (whether wasichu or Natural Free Human Being).
Like all of Simmons' books I have read to date, this hefty tome is worth the investment of time and energy, and the story will stay with the reader for a long time afterward. I heartily recommend it.