Monday, 19 August 2013

Rushmore Revelations

So it's a bit odd that I reviewed this book after Flashback. Not so odd if you know that this was written months before Flashback was released. Wish I'd thought of a better title, though.

Rushmore revelations

first published in The Malay Mail Online, 19 August 2013

Dan Simmons's time-tripping historical novel, Black Hills, can perhaps be considered among his better works of historical fiction. It chronicles the life and times of Paha Sapa, a Lakota Sioux named after his tribe's most sacred region, the Black Hills at what is today South Dakota in the US.

The novel starts right in the middle of the Battle of The Little Bighorn. A young Paha Sapa touches the body of a dying George Armstrong Custer and, with his supernatural talents, absorbs his ghost. He also divines Sioux war chief Crazy Horse's violent death in the very near future.

Soon after, Paha Sapa's guardian, his tribe's holy man, sends him to the Black Hills on a vision quest, far away from the paranoid Crazy Horse's deadly fury. What Paha Sapa sees there horrifies him: four stone giants, rising up from Mount Rushmore to literally devour the "fat of the land": trees, animals, and people.

Mount Rushmore was originally known as Six Grandfathers to the Lakota Sioux, and lies along a path taken by a chieftain on a spiritual trek. In the novel, it is the spirits of the mountain, also dubbed the Six Grandfathers, who show young Paha Sapa the dreadful vision.

However, he never gets to tell his tribe what he saw. While escaping an enemy tribe's patrol, he loses his tribe's treasure that was placed in his care. Feeling suicidal, the boy leads the white cavalry unit that captured him to Crazy Horse's war party, hoping to die in the ensuing skirmish. The plan fails, and Paha Sapa's life in a new America begins.

As William Slow Horse, Paha Sapa rides with Buffalo Bill's Wild West show, marries the daughter of a French missionary, and has a son with her. As Billy Slovak, he ends up working for sculptor Gutzon Borglum, who is raising four stone giants out of Mount Rushmore: carvings of former US presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln.

Believing that these were the stone giants he saw in his vision quest — the future he's supposed to prevent, Paha Sapa begins planning his version of 9/11 for the Mount Rushmore monument.

Simmons is quite the storyteller. He weaves lots of history and Native American culture and language into this tale with ease. Minor complaints, such as the non-linear storyline and the eye-gouging italics used to render much of the spoken dialogue and Custer's monologues, all fade from memory as one turns the pages.

Paha Sapa's observations of the white man's world through the lens of his tribal roots are interesting, even though he feels he no longer belongs in what is now the white man's country. So it's perhaps understandable when his son Robert enlists in the army, saying "My country is at war", Paha Sapa feels like exploding.

There's also Custer's ghost, lodged inside his mind. For decades he's endured the naughty love notes he dictated to his widow, or his taunts during the few "conversations" they have had.

And he believes that by leading the US cavalry to Crazy Horse that day, he may have played a role in the events that led to the eventual surrender of the sacred Black Hills to the US. Small wonder he needs to blow up something.

The epilogue, however, reads more like an article, and is perhaps too quick a wrap-up. I found the ending a bit too fantastical, even for a work that's part sci-fi, but it does sort of explain how Paha Sapa does, indirectly, save his beloved Native American culture.

While there's a bit of posturing about how all of humanity in general — natives and newcomers — are "fat takers", there is, I think, also a warning for all of us, spoken through the Six Grandfathers in one of Paha Sapa's visions:

"...the tides of men and their peoples and even of their gods ebbs and flows like the Great Seas on each coast of this continent we gave you. A people no longer proud of itself or confident in their gods or in their own energies recedes, like the waning tide, and leaves only reeking emptiness behind. These Fat Takers also shall know that one day..."

Black Hills
Dan Simmons
Reagan Arthur Books (2010)
485 pages
ISBN: 978-0-316-07265-6


Post a Comment

Got something to say? Great! Rant away!