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Book World: Barbara Ehrenreich reviews 'Black Hills' by Dan Simmons

By Barbara Ehrenreich
Tuesday, March 16, 2010; C06

BLACK HILLS

By Dan Simmons

Little, Brown. 487 pp. $25.99

The premise of Dan Simmons's new novel, "Black Hills," is not promising. A Lakota Sioux man named Paha Sapa ("Black Hills"), who is a paragon of Native American spirituality, goes to the Battle of the Little Big Horn and gets infected by the soul of Gen. Custer, thus becoming locked in uncomfortable interior intimacy with the celebrated Indian killer.

I know, I know -- and I would have tossed the book across the room if I had not already discovered Simmons through his 2007 novel, "The Terror." I almost gave up on that one in disgust when one of the principals turned out to be a monster with a taste for Arctic explorers. But I persisted, riveted for another 600 pages as the characters succumbed to cold, starvation, lead poisoning, cannibalism and attack by monster.

"The Terror" led to "Drood," Simmons's 2009 novel featuring Charles Dickens. The connection? Except for the monster, "The Terror" was a pretty straightforward attempt to reconstruct the fate of the lost Franklin Expedition to find the Northwest Passage. When evidence of cannibalism among the doomed expedition members surfaced in 1854, the real-life Dickens had been moved to write an essay on the impossibility of civilized white Christians committing such an outrage. But as we discover in "Drood," the author of "Oliver Twist" was himself up to his ears in the morbid and the occult, which seemed to be running rampant in the sewers and slums of London.

Confused? Well, welcome to my mind, which for better or worse has been colonized by this insanely prolific, multi-genre writer. So when Paha Sapa turns out also to be channeling Crazy Horse and Mount Rushmore sculptor Gutzon Borglum in addition to Custer, and to be capable of visions that carry him from the Pleistocene to well into the 21st century, I barely flinched.

One of the attractions, for those who crave outdoor adventure, is that Simmons does physical distress better than anyone -- whether it's freezing to death in the Arctic, wrestling with laudanum addiction in 19th-century London, or hauling dynamite to blow up Mount Rushmore, that appalling symbol of white power.

Another big attraction is history. Jonathan Franzen once accused readers of historical fiction of multi-tasking -- "absorbing civics lessons or historical data" at the same time as enjoying the story -- and I freely admit to this crime against literature. "Black Hills" is so research-driven that you can almost imagine the author as an intricate, jerry-rigged device designed to suck in historical data at one end and spray out fictional narrative at the other. For example, Simmons's portrayal of Custer's nonagenarian widow seems to be derived directly from the biographical sources, and when, in "Black Hills," President Coolidge visits Mount Rushmore and is entranced by the trout fishing, I was not surprised to confirm that detail by Googling.

After the genocidal Indian wars that Paha Sapa has been unfortunate enough to witness, it's impossible not to root for the destruction of the presidents' rock faces on the mountainside. But for anyone expecting a paean to Native American nobility and spiritual superiority, "Black Hills" holds a surprising twist. Toward the very end, Custer's ghost, who by this time has had second thoughts about his historical role, points out to Paha Sapa that the Sioux themselves were a "ruthless, relentless invasion machine," who had beaten back the Arikara, Hidatsa, Mandan, Crows and Pawnee and that the Sioux were, furthermore, ecological vandals: "We could smell your garbage heaps from twenty miles away," says Custer's ghost. "The only thing that made you look and seem noble was the fact that you could keep moving, leaving your buffalo-run heaps of rotting carcasses and giant mounds of stinking garbage behind you."

A stolid, hardworking survivor of so many battles and massacres, Paha Sapa is himself a kind of node in history, bringing together Crazy Horse and Custer, white expansionism and red defiance, not to mention astronomy and native mythology, as well as reverberations from the incipient European Holocaust.

So what does Simmons need the supernatural for? Couldn't he be content writing carefully researched historical fiction in beautiful prose? My guess is that he's using his monsters and ghosts to impress on us that the historical novelist's business of bringing the dead to life involves a kind of magic.

Ehrenreich is the author, most recently, of "Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America."

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