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.Skip to next paragraph
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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?