In 2008, at a signing for Dan Simmons’ last incredible tome, Drood – as well as in an interview for BookBanter – the bestselling and award-winning author talked about his next novel in progress: the story about a young Native American boy, Paha Sapa, who is possessed by the spirit and soul of General Custer, who recently expired at the Battle of Little Big Horn in 1876. It was a very unique sounding story, which is what Simmons does best, but I was certainly hesitant about the novel it would become, Black Hills. Sadly after the pinnacle of his writing with The Terror, Black Hills is a mediocre at best novel that Simmons clearly put a lot of work into, but at the end leaves the reader thinking: “Is that it?”
The story begins with 10-year-old Paha Sapa visiting the battle ground of Little Big Horn, after the fighting. He comes upon a man lying on the ground; as he investigates, a cloud form of the man’s spirit/soul enters his body. Dan Simmons has done his research on Native American ways and culture, as Paha Sapa prepares himself to become a man. His name means Black Hills, named for the specific hills of South Dakota. The story then jumps to 1936 when Paha Sapa is an old man, in his seventies, working on the building and sculpting of Mount Rushmore. Paha Sapa’s specific job is demolitions, strategically placing the dynamite to blast the rock. But he considers the building of Rushmore a great insult to his people and his country, and with President Roosevelt scheduled to make a visit in the near future, Paha Sapa has his own celebratory explosion planned.
Black Hills jumps back and forth in time with Paha Sapa’s growth as a boy in becoming a man, and then his slow, meticulous planning of the catastrophic explosion of Rushmore as he continues to work on the historical site. At the very end of the book, as the reader is left wondering why things happened the way they did, Simmons launches into a lengthy ethereal commentary about protecting and respecting this land and this world, which simply comes out of nowhere.
Simmons does what he does best with Black Hills: some interesting characters, strong description, good writing; but the story and plot are lacking in development, depth and interest that his other novels always possess. Black Hills is simply not a book for everyone: new readers may enjoy it, some Simmons fans may also, but this reviewer found it to be a weak novel from one of the best writers writing today.
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Originally written on May 19 2010 ©Alex C. Telander.