Every boy wants to prove he's a man at some point in his life, daring the world in one way or another. For Paha Sapa (Sioux for Black Hills, the place of his birth), a young Lakota boy, the act of counting coup on a fallen white soldier in the midst of a battle winds up backfiring and setting his life on a winding and inevitable course through to his old age.
The soldier he has laid his hands upon at the moment of death is none other than General George Custer, and as a result Custer's spirit or some form of it leaped into Paha Sapa's body and mind. Paha Sapa's gift which is rare but not unheard of among his people is a touch, though unpredictable, that gives him glimpses into the past and future of those he touches. And after touching the revered Crazy Horse after telling about his encounter with Custer, Paha Sapa's life is sent on a path away from his people during a tumultuous time (1876)--the dust is still settling in the aftermath of the American Civil War.
Jump ahead to the 1930s where Paha Sapa, now known to others as Billy Slow Horse, is working as a powderman on the construction of Mount Rushmore, carving the four heads of U.S. Presidents into the side of the mountain. Here, Paha Sapa still lives with the spirit of Custer many decades after first encountering him, has been married and raised a son, and now plots secretly to exact a measure of revenge and justice on the day President Roosevelt comes to commemorate to monument. As a boy, he had a Vision that foretold what he believes is to come in the wake of the white man's presence and scared him inexorably.
Paha Sapa's story jumps from past to present--"present" being a relative term here--as Dan Simmons lays out his life, his maturation, his heartbreak, and his resolutions. The story is punctuated periodically by George Custer's confused and wistful ramblings to his wife, Libbie. It's not exactly a period piece, and it can't be classified as paranormal suspense in spite of the inclusion of Custer's "ghost." This is a novel that defies genre, and all the better that it does.
It stands apart from just about anything I've read and the language used, seamlessly fusing English with bits of a Siouan tongue, as Paha Sapa gradually becomes more familiar with the white man's world and the white man's nature. At the core of the story, however, is a kind of romantic tale. The inclusion of Paha Sapa's relationships with both his wife, Rain, and son, Robert, really give a balance to the turmoil he suffers through his childhood and his old age.
This is a book I'll be stewing on for quite a while. It's certainly earned a permanent place on my bookshelf, and is easily the best novel I have read so far from this year--and I've read a couple of gems from 2010. The bar has been set rather high for the remaining nine months. If you want a novel that blends a coming of age story with a love story with a meandering through a people's history, I'd say this book is one you should consider reading.