three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
46-May-June-2010
By: 
Dan Simmons
user_rating: 
0

A-Black HillsProlific author Dan Simmons crosses and combines genres with enviable ease. His vast, intergalactic sagas--the Hyperion Cantos (1989–1998) and the Ilium/Olympos cycle (2004–2006)--have earned multiple awards and a wide following. He is also admired for his thrillers, horror novels, and detective fiction.

The Story: As a boy in 1876, Lakota Sioux warrior Paha Sapa ("Black Hills") wanders among the dead and dying shortly after the Battle of Little Big Horn. Reaching out to touch the crumpled body of a cavalry officer, he is suddenly invaded by the spirit of the man, General George Armstrong Custer. Tormented by the "white man's ghost" and haunted by visions of the future, Paha Sapa witnesses firsthand the subjugation of his people, the taming of the American West, and the birth of a new century, until, in 1936, he is driven by his premonitions to destroy a massive new monument--Mount Rushmore--under construction on a mountain sacred to his tribe.
Reagan Arthur Books. 512 pages. $25.99. ISBN: 9780316006989

Dallas Morning News 4 of 5 Stars
"Simmons' ventures into historical fiction all contain a startling supernatural element neatly folded into a factual, scrupulously researched backdrop. ... In Black Hills, the author's resolution of Paha Sapa's dilemma, involving sculptor Gutzon Borglum and the presidential faces at Mount Rushmore, is a brilliant stroke in this thoroughly absorbing, mystical work." Dale L. Walker

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"Black Hills has its share of misery and suffering, but it's ultimately a gentler, surprisingly optimistic book. ... Simmons, an astonishing literary jack-of-all-trades, continues to surprise and delight with a rich mix of history and virtuoso storytelling." Michael Berry

Entertainment Weekly 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Paha Sapa ... emerges as a complex figure struggling with a disappearing nationality and a shifting sense of self--not to mention the yammering id of the general's lingering spectre. Though some passages of Black Hills sink into tourist-pamphlet minutiae, Simmons ... keeps the tale buoyant with his evocative prose and storytelling muscle." Keith Staskiewicz

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Black Hills is so research-driven that you can almost imagine the author as an intricate, jerry-rigged device designed to suck in historical data at one end and spray out fictional narrative at the other. ... So what does Simmons need the supernatural for? Couldn't he be content writing carefully researched historical fiction in beautiful prose?" Barbara Ehrenreich

Christian Science Monitor 1.5 of 5 Stars
"For the Howard Zinns still among us, history is clear: [the] misguided artwork [of Mount Rushmore] celebrates Colonial domination of Indians and the eradication of indigenous American culture. Curiously, Simmons's overlong book re-revises this revisionist history, grafting a Native American ghost story onto American folklore in an epic mash-up that, if unsuccessful as a novel, offers a unique, if offensive, deconstruction of the weirdest bit of Americana east of Las Vegas." Justin Moyer

Critical Summary

Simmons's previous novels The Terror (2007) and Drood (2009) meld historical figures and events to occult phenomena, and Black Hills follows a similar pattern. Here, Simmons fuses the triumph of American Western expansion and the marvels of early 20th-century science and engineering with Native American spirituality and mysticism. Simmons is a gifted storyteller whose meticulous research and evocative prose deftly transport readers to another time and place. However, the Christian Science Monitor found the frequent barrage of historical minutiae tedious and criticized the novel's interpretation of Manifest Destiny and the harsh treatment of native populations, which it considered obnoxious and disrespectful. However, most critics praised Black Hills as a highly imaginative, interesting novel and a worthy addition to Simmons's oeuvre.

Also by the Author

The Terror (2007): In this clever conjuring of the real-life explorer's mysterious fate, Sir John Franklin's disastrous Arctic expedition comes to an abrupt halt as both of his ships, Erebus and Terror, become trapped in the ice. Desperate crewmen soon face disease, starvation, madness, and a mysterious predator with a taste for human flesh. ( 4 of 5 Stars Selection Mar/Apr 2007)