Black Hills

Thoughts on Dan Simmons's Black Hills

I have previously expressed my favorable opinion of Dan Simmons (here and here ) and with his 2010 novel Black Hills, he reinforces my appreciation of his amazing storytelling ability.  Black Hills tells the non-linear story of Paha Sapa, a Lakota Indian with the extraordinary ability to absorb another person’s memories and see their future simply by touching them.  As though that were not burden enough, he is also a participant in the Battle of the Greasy Grass (you know it better as the Battle of Little Big Horn) as a young boy and in touching the dying body of General George Armstrong Custer, he feels the ghost of Custer enter his body.  Paha Sapa then lives with the ghost of General Custer within him throughout his life, both of them watching as Paha Sapa’s people, culture, and way of life are destroyed by the relentless westward advance of modern civilization.  This is a fascinating, thought-provoking, sometimes heartbreaking story of a man who loses everything, always seeming to take two steps back for every step forward.  I enjoyed seeing this story from Paha Sapa’s perspective throughout several important periods in his life as the ghost of Custer offered the white man’s counter-perspective, usually in humorous fashion.

While there is a hint of the supernatural in this work of fiction, there is a lot of fact here, too.  Let no one say Dan Simmons fails to do proper research before he writes an historical novel.  The bibliography (humbly labeled “Acknowledgments”) is four pages long.  It is staggering to consider how much time Simmons must have spent just reading and researching the works of others before beginning his own project.  It demands respect.  On occasion though, it also gets in the way of the story and this is my one major concern with this book.  During a few rare moments, I felt as though I was reading a history text about Native American life or about the Battle of Little Big Horn or about the sculpting of Mount Rushmore or about the building of the Brooklyn Bridge.  It was always interesting information but in some cases, it felt like too much information presented in a dry manner and it slowed the story.

After reading Black Hills, I will view the Mount Rushmore monument, which I have not yet seen in person, in a completely different light now that I know how important the Black Hills region of South Dakota is to the Native American tribes of the area.  It is interesting to think that the monument was carved into that mountain to honor American democracy, but to the native peoples of the region, it is graffiti, a disgraceful defacing of a sacred mountain.

Masterfully interlacing fact with fiction to tell a story of American history from a perspective we rarely see, Dan Simmons has created a wonderful novel and solidified his position on my watch-list.  I truly enjoyed Black Hills and look forward to my next opportunity to read a Dan Simmons book.