Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Black Hills - Dan Simmons

Black Hills is the fourth book by Dan Simmons I've read and in these works he has impressed with the variety of themes and settings he takes on. Simmons has written science fiction, horror, historical novels, crime and probably other things I am not even aware of. The man's a very versatile writer. This book, like his previous two novels The Terror and Drood, could be considered historical fiction with a clear supernatural theme. Despite his science fiction past, this book may escape the genre ghetto and end up in the mainstream section of the book store. It certainly has a wide enough appeal to attract readers from both sides of this imaginary line.

The novel tells the story of the Paha Sapa. His name means Black Hills in Lakota but it is only used by those he is most intimate with, to the rest of the world he is Billy Slow Horse. Born in 1865, Paha Sapa lives through the final days of the independent, buffalo hunting lifestyle of his people. In 1876 he is present when a coalition of Lakota, Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho defeat General George Armstrong Custer in what is known as Custer's last stand. As any young Lakota boy would try to do, Paha Sapa counts coup of the dying general. In this act, Paha Sapa takes the spirit of Custer into his own body. It is the start an uncomfortable life carrying the spirit of one of the greatest enemies of his people around.

Paha Sapa's story takes us far beyond the Little Big Horn battlefield. It shows us much of the turbulent past of the region, from events like the death of Sitting Bull and the massacre at Wounded Knee to the Dust Bowl that would hit the Plains in the 1930s and the construction of the Mount Rushmore monument, where Paha Sapa works as a powder man. His life is lead in the belief that somehow he can make a difference, redress the old sores of the injustice his people suffered, stop the continuing degradation of the plains ecology he has witnessed throughout his life. The job at Mount Rushmore seems to present an opportunity. Especially when it becomes clear president Roosevelt will be visiting the site to dedicate the recently finished head of Thomas Jefferson.

Although not much of it shows up on this blog, I've read quite a few books with Native American themes in them. Anthropology of North American peoples is one of my father's interests and he owns a stack of books and magazines on the subject, quite a few of which I have read. In the fiction department it ranged from Karl May's hopelessly inaccurate and moralizing Winnetou adventures to Dee Brown's heart-wrenching historical fiction Creek Mary's Blood. I later added books such as Eye of Cat by Roger Zelazny and Indian Killer by Sherman Alexie (although I seem to have misplaced my copy of that book) and right now Frank Herbert's Soul Catcher is staring at me accusingly from the to read stack. The tragic events in the American West have been a source of inspiration for some great literature but there is also a god-awful lot of nonsense being written about it. Simmons has obviously come across his share of this doing the research for this book. I don't think I have ever read a book on the subject that so brutally pops a number of myths and misconceptions as Black Hills.

With Custer in his head Paha Sapa frequently has to face uncomfortable truths about his people's past. The general, who has a grudging respect for people like Crazy Horse, one of the great Lakota war chiefs, and despises the reservation Indians and the more peace-minded chiefs such as Red Cloud and Black Kettle (whom he thinks of as a hypocrite). He also reminds his host that even without all the military action that received so much attention the life-style of the plains tribes is doomed simply because of their reliance on the nearly extinct buffalo. The general is not shy about detailing the brutal style of warfare of the Lakota and the fact that a mere century and a half ago they pushed other tribes out of the region themselves. None of this noble savage living in harmony with the environment crap for Custer, who's cruel observations don't even spare the actions of his widow, fighting to preserve the reputation of her late husband. Simmons is not afraid to touch more recent controversies, such as the Crazy Horse memorial being built in the vicinity of the Mount Rushmore monument or the question of how much blood it takes to be part of a tribe, either. If you prefer a more romantic picture of Native Americans this book is a positively uncomfortable read.

Paha Sapa is an intelligent man, he sees the truth in some of what Custer tells him. That does not prevent him from seeing the tragedy of the defeat of his people, the senseless massacres and the unsustainable practices that drive the plains ecology to the brink of collapse. Throughout his life he fights against blatant discrimination but also what is described as the sullenness that overcomes the reservation Indians. Paha Sapa is a man who has lost a lot. His people and their culture, his wife after only four years of marriage and ultimately his son. You'd think the combination of a blunt ghost and a hard life would make him bitter. It doesn't. Paha Sapa strikes me as a gentle and very lonely man. Simmons has done a wonderful job portraying him as someone still very much in touch with the Lakota world view of his youth but certainly not blind to what the modern world has to offer. At times Simmons makes you feel like he should strike back at the world that has treated him so cruelly and he should do it NOW! But then, there is always this nagging doubt. Simmons holds that tension very well throughout the novel.

Black Hills is written very much out of chronological order. Chapters set in 1876 and the 1930s alternate and Simmons throws in a few chapters set in other periods as well as some interior monologue by Custer's ghost at various points in the novel. Gradually a more or less complete view of Paha Sapa's life appears. Simmons chooses to reveal quite a few important facts about his life before the events are actually described in the book and this is not something everybody will appreciate. Personally I didn't mind the non-linear fashion in which the story is told but the reader does have to pay attention.

Another factor that makes this book an interesting but challenging read is the sheer amount of research Simmons has put into it. The text is riddled with Lakota phrases for one thing. Thanks to Kevin Costner we all know one word in Lakota, Simmons adds to this vocabulary considerably. Names, places, concepts not easily translated into English, some passages are pretty hard to read because of all the Lakota injected into them. There are other places in the book where the weight of all that research seems to lie heavily on the story. The novel contains some very descriptive passages about the Chicago World Fair of 1893, the work at Mount Rushmore and New York City. In general I enjoy historical detail and much of it is fascinating to read about but at times I think it is slowing the story down more than it ought to.

Despite overdoing it slightly on the historical detail, I liked Black Hills an awful lot. From what I can tell Simmons has managed gotten as close as it is possible for a wasicu to get to the Lakota mindset. Paha Sapa is a very intriguing character, someone you can't help but like. The dilemma Paha Sapa faces and the way his life leads up to this one moment in which he has to choose kept me fascinated with this story. Simmons is most definitely a candidate for the best of 2010 list as far as I am concerned. It's one of those books I would recommend to everybody, no matter what your reading preferences are.

Book Details
Title: Black Hills
Author: Dan Simmons
Publisher: Quercus
Pages: 487
Year: 2010
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-1-84916-088-9
First published: 2010


  1. I have to agree with you mostly, I prefered the historical details over the depths of Custer's intimate details, but I didn't actually read the book. I listened to the unabridged audio book with narrators: Erik Davies, Michael McConnohie. They do a fantastic job and they pronounce the Lakota words so well by the end of the book I realized I was understanding Lakota. I would definitely suggest revisiting the audio version if you read the printed edition.

    1. I'm not terribly fond of audio books to be honest. If I don't do my own reading I tend to get distracted. In this case it might add to the experience though.