At Little Big Horn, Custer’s ghost enters the body of an 11-year-old American Indian and commingles there for close to 500 pages.
Among the Lakota (Sioux), conventional wisdom has always held that Paha Sapa’s life experience was likely to be unconventional. His very name attests to this. Paha Sapa means Black Hills (South Dakota), and Lakota kids don’t often get named for real places. Add to this the eyebrow-raising fact that in an intensely militaristic society, Paha Sapa marches to a different drummer—a Lakota boy with no aspirations to warrior-hood. Not that he’s effeminate or in any way cowardly—he more than holds his own at tribal rough stuff. It’s just that, well, he seems to think a lot. And then, of course, he gets those visions. Still, his report of what he experienced as the victorious dust settled over Little Big Horn transcends the merely unconventional. Long Hair’s (Custer’s) ghost in so unorthodox a body? Sitting Bull begs to doubt it. As does Crazy Horse, and virtually all the other illustrious war chiefs. But what matters most is that Paha Sapa believes unshakably that he’s ghost-ridden because in a very real sense this shapes his destiny. Through the event-packed years that follow, pivotal conversations continue nonstop between ghost and boy—purely rancorous at the outset, more complex and ambiguous as time passes. These remarkable conversations happen in a variety of famous places: the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, where Paha Sapa’s single love affair suddenly blossoms; Mount Rushmore, where his smoldering anger against white exploitation reaches its apex; and where the visionary Indian and the spectral Indian fighter finally come to terms with each other.
There are rewards here, but Simmons (Drood, 2009, etc.) buries an appealing protagonist and an intriguing story under the crushing weight of a tome.