Monday, September 20, 2010

Black Hills by Dan Simmons (audiobook)

Black Hills is a rich, engrossing historical drama that is also a bit of a ghost story.

As a young boy, Paha Sapa (or Black Hills in English) grew up happily in the American West with his adopted father Limps-a-Lot as part of his Sioux (or Natural Free Human Beings) tribe. Paha Sapa had a gift in that he could see peoples’ past and future histories through touch. With this gift, he is able to see the future tragedy of Crazy Horse, and unfortunately picks up General George Armstrong Custer’s ghost at the moment of his death at the battle of Little Big Horn. Fortunately he doesn’t understand Custer’s English for awhile and doesn’t get to hear the pornographic stories that Custer loves to tell about his wife, Libby.

In the future, a much older Paha Sapa is working as a dynamite expert on the Mount Rushmore project. The Black Hills are considered sacred by his people, and Paha Sapa is determined to take action against the project, by blowing the entire Mount Rushmore project up on the day that Franklin Roosevelt visits to dedicate the Jefferson head. This plan is riveting and provides some great action toward the end of the novel.

The book swings back and forth between Paha Sapa’s past and future, with the history of Paha Sapa himself, and of the Native American People overall. Paha Sapa lived through riveting times including the Battle of Little Bighorn, Wounded Knee, the assassination of Sitting Bull, the Chicago’s World Fair, traveling with the Wild West Show, and the Dust Bowl. I loved the detailed description of these events.

Indeed, there were several thrilling sections in this book, such as when Paha Sapa tries to outrun a massive dust storm in his truck and the beautiful description of the Chicago’s World Fair. The love story between Paha Sapa and Rain at the Fair was beautiful, and I also loved the relationship between Paha Sapa and his son, Robert.

This book so enthralled me in these sections, that it had me sobbing in the car while on the way to a meeting over the death of a main character, which was followed by a flashback of a young Paha Sapa discovering the remnants of his village after it had been destroyed by the American Calvary. I have never had that reaction listening to an audiobook before. It was a couple of very powerful scenes.

Unfortunately, this book had the potential to be a great book, but it is only a good book. Where the book failed was in having some crisp editing performed on it. The first bit of editing would be on General Custer. His ghost liked to write pornographic letters to his wife in poor young Paha Sapa’s head. The cut to these sections was jarring and served no purpose in the story . . . except to make me laugh. In particular when Custer details the “best one minute of his life” and somehow having intimate relations with his wife while galloping on his horse through the plains. I thought to myself, love scenes by men are very different than love scenes written by women. Simmons had a compelling and sweet love story with Paha Sapa and Rain, but Custer and Libby’s story fell flat.

There was also a long section in the middle of the book where Paha Sapa travels east as an old man to visit an elderly Libby. He goes to see the building of the Brooklyn Bridge. I am an engineer and love to hear and read about infrastructure, but even I was bored by this section. It did not further the plot at all and seemed really out of place in the story.

The third section that sadly cried for an editor was the end of the book. The book had a great ending . . .but then continued on for at least one more CD as Paha Sapa’s spirit as a raven flies over the past and future earth detailing things that had been and were to come. I was almost bored to tears during this section. I would consider this section a fantasy/science fiction too in detailing what was to come in the future. I could see what Simmons was trying to do with this section and appreciated the vision, but it dragged on for too long.

Black Hills made me really think about the treatment of Native Americans in North America again. I know it was a tragic history, but the book does a good job of trying to display both sides of the tale. It was a sad story, but also fascinating.

Simmons did fantastic research and wrote a very powerful and rich historical drama. I really enjoyed listening to it, and will definitely try some more of Simmons’ novels (I have Drood on my “too-read” pile). I just wish an editor had gotten a hold of the manuscript and had convinced Simmons to chop out the parts of the novel that did not advance the story. Paha Sapa’s tale was enthralling, heartbreaking, and a true American Adventure.

Audio Book Source: Review Copy from Hachette Book Group. Thank-you!


  1. I read this book and just loved all of the historical aspects it had to offer. I agree with you about the part of the Brooklyn Bridge...I think that whole section went right over my head!

  2. Oh my gosh every time I see this I want to read it!

    We are planning a Minnesota/Wisconsin Meet up for book bloggers and I knew you were a Wisconsin blogger so thought I would make sure you knew about this. It is in October and the details are on my blog. If you are interested I can send you more information :)

  3. I'm always looking for a good audio book, but I'm not sure this is one. Definitely not if it'll have me sobbing in the car!

  4. I keep thinking about this book. There were sections that were fantastic and had such beautiful heart-felt prose that really struck a cord with me. And then there was the Brooklyn Bridge . . . it really disappoints me how this book had so much potential, but didn't quite make it there.