Science fiction and history mingle in this novel about a native American who travels from 1930s Mount Rushmore back into America’s past.
Though a worthy backdrop for the final chase scene in “North by Northwest” and the victim of unfriendly aliens in “Superman II,” Mount Rushmore looms larger in America’s cinema than in its cultural consciousness. The granite visages of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt adorn postcards and bumper stickers and draw millions to South Dakota’s Black Hills every year, but, unlike the National Mall, serve no purpose beyond patriotic landmarkship. In person, they seem small, insignificant, an artificial asterisk among majestic mountains. As a monument, Mount Rushmore’s just not that monumental.
Still, as anyone flying a Confederate flag 150 years after the Civil War’s conclusion knows, cultural gestures create controversy. In Black Hills, Dan Simmons plunges into the imbroglio that surrounds Mount Rushmore, a white sculpture paid for by a white government carved into Six Grandfathers, a mountain sacred to the Sioux. For the Howard Zinns still among us, history is clear: This misguided artwork celebrates Colonial domination of Indians and the eradication of indigenous American culture. Curiously, Simmons’s overlong book re-revises this revisionist history, grafting a native American ghost story onto American folklore in an epic mash-up that, if unsuccessful as a novel, offers a unique, if offensive, deconstruction of the weirdest bit of Americana east of Las Vegas.
Try to keep up: When we meet Paha Sapa (that’s “Black Hills” in the language of the Lakota Sioux) in 1934, he’s just another old Indian powder man toiling beneath architect Gutzon Borglum at Mount Rushmore, helping carve the faces of four Wasicun (“white”) presidents into his forefathers’ sacred mountain. But Paha Sapa is no septuagenarian Tonto. “It’s time for Thomas Jefferson’s head to explode,” he thinks, hatching a plan to seed Borglum’s monument with dynamite and destroy it during a visit from FDR, reclaiming Six Grandfathers for his people. This mission is political and personal – as a young brave, Paha Sapa touched the body of George Armstrong Custer after he perished at Little Big Horn, and has carried the soldier’s ghost with him ever since. Tormented for over half a century by Custer’s X-rated babble – the undead officer moans less for his lost cavalry than for his wife – Paha Sapa is torn between his heritage and the Wasicun world he inhabits, and hopes to reassert his native American identity with one mighty explosion. Rife, symbol-rich material for a page-turning thriller, no?
That’s before Paha Sapa becomes a fin de siècle Sioux Forrest Gump. Simmons, mistaking fetishism for accuracy, thrusts his characters into the past only to show off his formidable talent for research. (If Paha Sapa was a real person, as Simmons claims in an epilogue, he’s not thanked for the great liberties “Black Hills” takes with his life story.) Paha Sapa’s unlikely repartee with Custer, an Oscar/Felix setup that would make a hilarious Sherman Alexie short story, isn’t device enough; Paha Sapa also must know Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse personally, perform in Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show, and fall in love at the 1893 Chicago World Fair.
Paha Sapa’s world spins around Simmons’s mastery of historical minutiae, and the dialogue in “Black Hills”’ suffers accordingly. “The revolving Hotchkiss cannon had five thirty-seven-millimeter barrels and was capable of firing forty-three rounds per minute,” Paha Sapa tells his son during one heartfelt exchange. “He guesses that the cable rises about 750 to 800 feet from this point to its pass-through notch near the top of the tower about 275 feet above the river,” Simmons writes of Paha Sapa’s trip to the Brooklyn Bridge – a visit that tries to reconcile native American wakan (“magic”) and Wasicun technical marvels, but is more about engineering specs. When – heaven forbid – Paha Sapa doesn’t have every fact and figure at his command, his ability to see other characters’ pasts and futures conveniently fills in the blanks, allowing Simmons to riff on events that haven’t even happened yet.
And, when peering into the future, “Black Hills” skates on thin ice. A gifted science fiction author, Simmons gained mainstream recognition by weaving fantastical narratives around real people. “The Terror” (2007) imagined Arctic explorer Sir John Franklin pursued by a polar monster; last year’s “Drood” inserted Charles Dickens into his own final, unfinished novel.
This precious fictive hook can’t work when applied to native American genocide. Close to death, Paha Sapa envisions the “rewilding” of the Great Plains at an unspecified date by the federal government – that is, the same government that blazed the Trail of Tears, murdered Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, and commissioned Rushmore in the first place. “[T]here will be no mass extinctions because of our presence,” Simmons writes. “Adults may choose to live among jaguars, lions, and grizzly bears ... as long they did so by the rules of the epoch they had come to live in.” Given America’s questionable management of its natural resources and the sham global warming debate, this Eden isn’t just an unlikely outcome – it’s bad fiction that neither reflects reality nor entertains.
Simmons thinks he can heal Colonial wounds with a good yarn, and his condescension doesn’t help the dreary final third of this long novel.
“Paha Sapa is a sucker for history,” Simmons writes. “Also ... he is a victim of it. (But so is everyone else.)” Surely, this writer cannot think his narrative gifts offer escape from that parenthesis.
Justin Moyer is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.