Science fiction and history mingle in this novel about a native American who travels from 1930s Mount Rushmore back into America’s past.
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.