Black Hills by Dan Simmons
Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the very generous Hachette Book Group.
I have wanted to read Dan Simmons since I first heard about Drood but I’ve been waiting for it to appear in paperback (that hardcover looks like it could also serve as a murder weapon or doorstop). As a result, this is actually the first Simmons novel I’ve read, and my views are mixed, to say the least.
The premise sounded intriguing though if I’d actually read it before just hearing "free book by Dan Simmons," I’m not sure I would have gotten it. Black Hills is a young Lakota (also known as Sioux) boy who becomes inhabited by General George Armstrong Custer’s ghost, since he touches him as he dies. Black Hills (or Paha Sapa) has already shown a certain supernatural gift, since he occasionally gets flashbacks or flash forwards when he touches people, thus knowing their past or future. For the most part, it’s just small glimpses but there are a few people where this touch leads to him knowing their entire life, Crazy Horse included.
The novel flashes back and forth between that summer in 1876 when Paha Sapa first comes into contact with the ghost and 1936 when he works as a dynamite person on the building of Mt. Rushmore. The novel also takes a look at other times in his life, but these are the major focuses of the novel. In between, there is also Paha Sapa’s stint with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show and his domestic life. Paha Sapa, or Billy Slow Horse as he goes by (or Billy Slovak at other points), wants to destroy Mt. Rushmore, and when he hears that the president, FDR, will come to see the completion and revealing of the second head, Thomas Jefferson, Paha Sapa decides this would be the perfect opportunity.
It took me a little bit of time to get into this novel for several reasons. First of all, I felt like the explosion plot had very little tension to it – I could definitely understand Paha Sapa’s desire to destroy the monument in progress, but it’s Mt. Rushmore – I’m pretty sure I can say we’ve all seen pictures of it, so it’s not like his plot is going to succeed. Maybe if Simmons had used a less well known artifact that actually would have required some googling, it would have been more effective tension-wise, but it wouldn’t have had the same meaning as destroying Mt. Rushmore.
I mentioned earlier that I would have been hesitant to buy this based on the plot description and this is due to the fact that I can occasionally be skeptical when it comes to whites writing about other cultures – granted, I’m sure an actual Lakota wouldn’t be able to completely accurately represent life within the tribes over a hundred years ago either, but that person would still possibly have a better understanding. With white authors, I just fear there is always the chance of slipping into the “noble savage” stereotype. I’m not sure if Simmons avoided that or not (while I definitely enjoyed the later part of the novel, certain parts of the ending and Paha Sapa’s last vision revealed in the novel just irritated me and seemed to take the whole noble savage thing to an extreme).
A few of the chapters are also General Custer’s ramblings – he addresses himself to his wife Libbie, reminiscing about their lives and all the sex they had, especially in the beginning before he realizes he is a ghost trapped in someone’s head rather than just sleeping to recover from his injuries. Towards the end of the novel, his character actually makes a few statements that make some sense (I read Stephen Ambrose’s biography Crazy Horse and Custer years ago, and completely hated Custer as an arrogant bastard that led his men to death for glory – this novel makes the point that he was simply acting on strategies that had never failed in the past) but in the beginning? I really could have passed on all the sex scenes. It’s not that I have a problem with sex scenes but I didn’t need to read about Custer and Libbie having sex on a horse. I guess one of the reasons this bugs me is that these are real people and there are certain things I don’t think we need to imagine about historical figures, sex on a horse being one of them and whether or not Libbie shaved her vagina being another.
The parts I enjoyed the most actually concerned Paha Sapa’s life in the middle, describing the few opportunities he had after that one summer, and his domestic life. To me, it was much more interesting to see how his life developed and what led him to a place where he would want to blow up Mt. Rushmore rather than reading about him plotting it. I’m not sure how this compares to the author’s other novels, but if I had to make a choice, I guess I would recommend this novel to anyone interested though I would probably point out all the things I said above while making the recommendation (and I’d probably only remember to recommend this if it happened to come up in conversation somehow, not in response to “hey, what should I read?”).