Black Hills

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Black Hills

Review #1

Black Hills audiobook free

While Amazon reader reviews of “Black Hills” are mixed, there was no doubt in my mind: this was a knockout – an epic slice of United States history that while fictional, accurately covers a wide swaths of American culture. At the same time, the extraordinary Dan Simmons creates in the Sioux/Lakota Paha Sapa one of the most complex, intriguing and likeable protagonists I’ve read in years. The story jumps off the first page at the infamous Battle of Little Big Horn – “Custer’s Last Stand” – when eleven year-old Paha Sapa (literally “Black Hills” in Lakota) is the last person to see Custer alive. To his horror, the slain Colonel’s ghost enters the young Indian, providing Simmons a convenient way of telling Custer’s own story in parallel with that of the lives, legends, and sorrows of the native tribes of the Great Plains. The ambitious and non-linear plot covers two main stories centered in South Dakota’s Black Hills – on one hand, the clash between the Indians and the advancing US Calvary, and on the other, the story of the now seventy year-old Paha Sapa and the carving of the Mount Rushmore National Monument under the firm but respected hand of egotistical sculptor Gutzon Borglum. In between, Simmons manages to capture fascinating snapshots of the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 (including Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show), the horror of the Midwest Dust Bowl, the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, and even a glimpse of trench warfare in the fields of France in WWI.

You can always count on some mischief from Dan Simmons, and he doesn’t fail here, despite the serious content matter. This disembodied Custer’s ghost, unaware of his metaphysical state, spends his time composing letters to his beloved wife Libby, portrayed as a lusty and adventurous young woman, totally un-Victorian in her views on sex and the role of women in society. As Paha Soba ages and learns English, he understands more about the white spirit he is hosting, and by the end of the book Soba-Custer are beginning to look a lot like the Tony Randall – Jack Klugman Odd Couple. Some of the pornographic love scenes between Libby and General George will shock the senses, only to be whiplashed back to the brutality on and off the battlefield with unthinkable barbarism practiced by both sides. Through it all, Paha Soba – by now aka “Billie Slow Horse” – trudges through one personal tragedy in his life after another – a long-suffering victim of race, culture, and simple bad luck – while never losing his integrity or honor. And true to form, Simmons throws in a neat twist at the end – make that a few twists – to finish as surprising as it is satisfying.

While some may be put off by the supernatural angle of Dan Simmons’ work, it is consistent with the beliefs of the Native Americans, while capturing the brutality of the rituals endured by mere children in reaching adulthood. The story is poignant but never maudlin, powerful but not melodramatic. Simmons loves to teach – and this is a wonderfully informative book – but is never pedantic. He teaches his history through anecdotes and vignettes that run the gamut from sentiment and affection to brutality and sheer terror, setting a pace that keeps the reader delightfully off balance and inextricably glued to the pages. Simmons has no agenda here – this is not the typical bleedy-heart diatribe more typical of books covering the plight of Native Americans, but neither does it condone the actions and betrayals of the United States. This is thought provoking material told wish passion and raw emotion – a powerful lesson in race, culture, religion and ecology.

On the heels of “The Terror” and “Druid”, I’d argue that “Black Hills” places Simmons on the top of a short list of writers who can combine serious historical fiction with raw entertainment. And given Simmons’ prolificacy and diversity of his subjects, it would be hard to argue that he is not the most versatile of accomplished American fiction writers. In short, “Black Hills” is without a doubt one of the top novels I’ve read in the past few years – that rare novel that will be haunting me long after its back on the shelf. Bravo.

Review #2

Black Hills audiobook

The Race Track is the Lakota term for an oval depression surrounding the Black Hills of South Dakota. Here, they believe, animals of earth and sky competed in a grueling contest to determine who should rule the world. But in this book, the Race Track is more like the edges of a wound, where the knife of history, with its social and technological “progress,” stabbed through the heart of Native American culture and indeed of North America. In Black Hills, Simmons explores the thrust of this great knife through an epic brimming with compelling characters and amazing historical detail.
Simmons has crafted his most memorable character in the Lakota boy Paha Sapa, whose life stretches from the Battle of Little Big Horn to the Space Age – and beyond, thanks to a supernatural gift that he often wishes he never had. It’s a very tricky thing for a writer to hop back and forth between time periods, but Simmons is sure-handed in following his protagonist – a good man of curiosity and considerable intelligence – through the demise of his culture and the rise of America to a world power. Paha Sapa has an intense spiritual connection with what he believes to be the ghost of George Armstrong Custer, whom he touches as a boy counting coup for the first time. He also has a gift for looking back and forth through the lives of people he touches. This makes him a catalyst in events he has foreseen but cannot change, and the resulting helplessness takes him more than once into a place of despair. He often sees himself as a failure and is ready to give up on life after he tries to commit a cataclysmic act of defiance toward the white world and can’t bring himself to do it: even his morality, it seems, gets in his way. But life has more in store for Paha Sapa than even his psychic gifts can tell him to expect, and there are rewards waiting for him as well as heartbreak. Along the way, Simmons being the master of historical research, we learn a lot about every situation Paha Sapa finds himself in, from the 1893 Chicago Columbian Exposition to the carving of Mount Rushmore, from the childhood games of the Lakota to a vision of the future. Some reviewers don’t like that vision, and it does feel a bit tacked on, but it for many readers it will be an introduction to the concept of “rewilding” a great stretch of North America. If that vision goes beyond what may be achievable, it’s still a future that many of us wish could happen.
Simmons’ people, from Custer (whose sexual reminiscences are offered in a bit too much detail) to a myriad of other historical figures as well as entirely fictional characters,are all well-drawn. If 20th-century American literature was too full of wonderfully heroic, morally driven pioneers and greedy savage redskins, and 21st-century writings make it the other way around, Simmons avoids the extremes and gives us people we want to take this great journey with. Likewise, his view of technology presents the good, the bad, and the transformative: even as the advances of the wasicu (whites, or more literally Fat Takers) spell the end of traditional life, they also amaze Paha Sapa with their possibilities. (As a writer with some knowledge of the history of technology, I usually look for nitpicks on that topic in any book I read: if Simmons made any mistakes, I didn’t find them.)
So I encourage readers to touch the hand of Paha Sapa, connect with his spirit, and follow his life. Black Hills is a voyage into history and humanity that will entertain you while giving you a lot to think about.

Review #3

Audiobook Black Hills by Nora Roberts

An elegiac meander through the last years of the Lakota people’s free existence, the death of Custer and its repercussions, the building of the Mount Rushmore monument on the Six Grandfathers in the Black Hills, and the creation of modern America. Black Hills is less focussed, more discursive and sometimes rambling than Simmons’ other historical-based fiction, and at times perhaps a little self-indulgent in its digressions from the story but it feels so personal it’s hard to begrudge the author his full say. As usual, the world and characters Simmons paints feel thoroughly authentic, and the narrative does justice to the land and its people, while not sugar coating anything.

Review #4

Audio Black Hills narrated by Nick Podehl

I’m a big fan of much of Dan Simmons work (Hyperion, Illium, The Terror, Song of Kali) but this was one didn’t work for me.

There’s a huge amount of research woven into the story, and the scenes of Paha Sapa’s young life will be fascinating for those lacking knowledge of familiarity with the Lakota (I’m not an American so I’m fairly ignorant of the history of the Native Americans of the plains) and I liked the fact that he showed a warts-and-all depictions of the life of the Lakota, and didn’t lapse into sentimental cliché.

However the story starts to drag after a while. There are long periods of the story in which nothing very much happens, with little suspense generated. One of the main plot arcs is built around a historical event, so as a reader you already know what’s going to happen. Hence the story suffers from a lack of dramatic tension.

Meanwhile, Paha Sapa’s infection with the ghost of Custer is largely ignored and has no real role in the plot. For 95% of the novel, the ghost’s only role is to write long, smutty letters to his wife, which adds nothing to the story in my view (except to make this reader feel awkward at times at the bad sex). I’m guessing these missives are supposed to provoke an initial sense of profound loss (to tie in with the spiritual loss theme as the Native Americans are slaughtered and forced off their land), leading towards the main theme of the novel (everything changes). But it just didn’t work for me. I got bored, rather than moved.

Meanwhile the ending section, with two rather unbelievable plot twists in quick succession, seems like a fairly clumsy attempt to make the “everything changes” theme blindingly obvious for those who missed it the first time around.

Character wise, Paha Sapa is taciturn and shares little internal depth with the reader – you get to know him and watch him develop as a child, but as a man he’s all surfaces, quiet watchfulness, and occasional lapses into unthinking anti-Semitism. I found myself not liking him very much by the end of the book and, apart from the scenes where he meets his wife, not really connecting with him as a character. I just didn’t care enough about what happened to him.

Paha Sapa also tends not to _do_ very much for large chunks of the book, just let history unfold around him. I suppose Simmons’ thinking was that the history was big enough (Little Big Horn and the battles for the plains, the Chicago World’s Fair, the carving of Mount Rushmore) that he didn’t need an active protagonist. But that’s all just a history lesson, and with no dramatic tension and no one to root for, it’s not going to hold my attention for almost 500 pages.

I kept reading until the end mostly out of a sense of misplaced loyalty (as I’ve loved so many of Simmons’ other works). But the truth is I was bored and wanted to stop reading by about half way through.

Review #5

Free audio Black Hills – in the audio player below

Excellllent story based on actual facts. Not only was I entertained by a story but came away with a great deal of information on the hardship early Americans imposed on the people who peopled the land before them. An unjust system that goes to prove the white man as a predator with no regard to the abuse of the land, nature and the American native tribes. Dan Simmons I find has a way of weaving a thread that joins all of this into a story that will remain with me for some time.

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