BOOK: Black Hills by Dan Simmons (2010)

I’ve been a big fan of author Dan Simmons ever since reading his terrifying novel Song of Kali about 9 years ago.  In the last few years, he’s shifted from his more standard horror or sci-fi works to an interesting combination of horror and history instead.  The first of these new horror-historicals, The Terror, was about the Franklin expedition to find the Northwest Passage and the man-eating monster the men encountered on the way, and I found it enthralling, as well as incredibly detailed with amazing research on the era, the setting, and the original expedition itself.

The second, Drood, a fictional take on Charles Dickens, I found kind of a slog, in large part because I’m not much of a Dickens fan, so the elements of his life and creative process were less inherently interesting to me.   I think I’d like it if I stuck with it, though, and I do plan to go back to it at some point and try again.  If and when the mood strikes.

But his third, this novel, had me excited as soon as I read the description on the back of the paperback.  A story combining Native American spirituality, the Battle of Little Big Horn, and the crafting of Mount Rushmore?  Sign me right the heckwild up.  I’ve always been fascinated with Native American history and culture, thanks in large part to my grandfather, who was extremely knowledgeable on the subject, and I didn’t know much about Mount Rushmore (been there once but was too young at the time for it to have made any significant impression on me) and was curious to learn more.  All in all, sounded like the perfect summer tome.

The novel opens by introducing us to its main character, a Native American man in his 70s named Paha Sapa (“Black Hills”) who is the chief explosions expert working under architect Gutzon Borglum at Mount Rushmore.  This job seems odd to anybody who knows the history of the monument — that it’s essentially a big “frak you” to the Native Americans of the region, a monument to white power over red, carved meticulously into one of the most sacred mountains of the Sioux people.  But it’s not long before we realize what Paha Sapa is actually doing there.  He plans to help build the thing, and then he plans to blow it right up.  It’s his destiny, he believes, a destiny he saw in a vision as a boy, many, many years ago.

Cut from there back to 1876, Custer’s Last Stand at Little Big Horn, just after the Sioux have whomped the white man’s ass.  There, a ten-year old Paha Sapa is moving around among the dead, when he comes across a soldier who is still alive, though clearly not for long.  He reaches down to touch the man and is suddenly infused with his soul or ghost (however you prefer to think about it), just as the man dies under his hand.  It’s not until he recounts the experience to his Elders later that night that he realizes the man was Custer himself.

As it turns out, Paha Sapa has a unique ability to touch people and see into their lives, both their pasts and their futures.  And now, having touched someone at the moment of their death, he also carries within him the spirit of the most infamous archenemy of his people, Gen. George Custer, who spends the next half-a-century-plus babbling constantly (mostly in x-rated detail about sex with his wife, oddly enough) inside Paha’s head.

As the story of Paha’s life unfolds — the various things that ultimately brought him to Mount Rushmore to fulfill his destiny there — he experiences just about every historically important event of the era.  He knows Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse personally (and fears them equally), he works for a time in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, he travels to see the new Brooklyn Bridge and gives us an intricately detailed account of how it was built (amazing), and he falls in love with his beautiful, doomed wife at the Chicago World Fair.

Throughout it all, Paha Sapa finds himself in a constant struggle between wanting to retain and reassert his heritage, and knowing it’s too late; that his only option now — his only real option — is to come to terms with the “Wasicun” (white) world he inhabits and somehow manage to craft a Self that fits into both his past and his future.

I was absolutely riveted by this novel from start to finish, no doubt about it.  As far as I could tell, based on a combination of my own knowledge and occasional Internet searches to learn more about some element or another (I’ve done a LOT of reading about Mount Rushmore of late, for example), most of the details of the story’s various historical punctuations are incredibly well-researched and accurate, despite being fictionalized to include Paha Sapa’s participation or observation.  The more philosophical elements of the story — the search for one’s identity, the pain of grappling with the loss of your people, the Cassandra-like agony of knowing the future and being unable to prevent it,  the development of Paha’s “relationship” with Gen. Custer, and Paha’s ultimate, exceedingly calm decision to destroy one of the most famous monuments in our country right in front of one of its most famous presidents (he plans to blow it just as FDR shows up to see its opening ceremonies) — are enthralling overall as well.

THAT SAID, there is no point in trying to argue that this is a “good book.”  It is, in fact, pretty much a disaster.  Some of the very same things I liked about it were among its strongest literary flaws — one character experiencing so personally so MUCH of history’s most famous events and people?  That’s just one example of what I felt like was Dan Simmons’s fascination with the era getting in his own way.  The book is also enormous, and overly rich with historical details that just don’t matter (I could see he was telling us about the Brooklyn Bridge, for example, because it was such a unique example of white technological marvel, standing out in contrast, like Mount Rushmore, against the novel’s broader back-drop of Native American “magic,” but while it was definitely an amazing segment, it didn’t belong in this novel and neither did several other tangents into history along the way).

In this regard, I couldn’t help but be reminded of what ultimately drove me bananas when it came to Connie Willis’s series Blackout/All Clear (my review of All Clear is coming next, incidentally) — both authors clearly had agendas, and those agendas were to share a love of some historical era with the reader, but the authors also had to deal with the reader’s genre expectations for them, and therefore had to shove into what were otherwise plain historical novels (or even plain historical textbooks, frankly) elements of science fiction (Willis) and the supernatural (Simmons) that conflicted with the narrative, and ended up resulting in a discombobulating mess that went on far too long and lacked clear focus.

Despite its enormous flaws, however, I very much enjoyed this novel and would recommend it to anybody who has read The Terror and/or Drood and liked them — you already know what Simmons’s horror-historicals are like, so you may be as able to overlook his tendency toward distracted tangle easier than the average reader.  I also think this novel would appeal to anybody interested in Native Americans in general and the history of that time and region, as well; I learned SO MANY THINGS about the Sioux and the Black Hills area, for example, and I thoroughly enjoyed learning them!

But despite that enjoyment, I’m fully willing to admit this book was a mess, desperately in need of a good, firm editing hand.  It was a mess I was more than happy to put up with, but a mess nonetheless.

Recommended with caveats!

Genre: FICTION
ISBN: 0316006998

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2 Responses to “BOOK: Black Hills by Dan Simmons (2010)”

  1. Rica Says:

    yay! great review. Probably won’t read the book now, but only because I don’t have time to, and not because of your review.

    Because I think I could love the book, flaws and all.

  2. Liz Says:

    I feel the same way – great review. I think I’d like this book a lot, but I don’t think I’ll have time to read it.

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