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Black Hills Paperback – 6 Jan 2011
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'I am in awe of Dan Simmons' Stephen King. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From the Inside Flap
Paha Sapa, 'Black Hills', is an American Indian shaman who as a young boy at the Battle of Little Bighorn believes that he has taken the ghost of the dying General Custer into his body. Sixty years later, while working as a dynamiter on Mount Rushmore, Paha Sapa plots to blow up the monument on the day President Roosevelt arrives to dedicate the Jefferson head. Meanwhile, Custer finds himself trapped in a strange, dark place and begins to write sensuous, heartbreaking missives to his beloved wife. Thus begins an intricate narrative that sweeps across some of the most tumultuous and violent periods of American history, from the old West to the Dust Bowl of the 1930s and into our own time and beyond. Paha Sapa possesses the ability to see into the memories and futures of legendary figures such as the Sioux war-chief Crazy Horse and Rushmore's sculptor Gutzon Borglum, a curse and a power which will stay with him throughout his long, event-filled life. Black Hills is historical fiction with Dan Simmons' visionary twist. He weaves in real places, events and people with a thrilling tale of supernatural suspense to recreate a dramatically changing world.--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title. See all Product description
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Top customer reviews
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.
I am a big fan of Dan Simmons and if you check out my reviews you will find him one of the mostly highly rated in reviews that i have written. I bought the book based soley on the fact that Dan Simmons wrote it. For many another writer it would, i think, have been a good book, however, Mr Simmons has produced some of the best fiction that i have ever read and in comparison this failed.
It is still an enjoyable book telling the tale of a lakota North American Native that sees to have become westernised yet has not.
Mr Simmons obviously has an interest in this time period and describes it rather vividly and quite interestingly.
Yet i feel it lacked a little of some of his other novels.
I would urge you though not to let that put you off as he is the author of some of the greatest novels that i have read.
Sixty years after this historic moment, Paha Sapa is again part of American legend when he is working for Gutzon Borglum as a dynamiter on Mount Rushmore. Now diagnosed with cancer, Paha Sapa intends to blow up the monument the day President Roosevelt is due to arrive for a dedication ceremony. In so doing Paha Sapa hopes to avoid the fulfilment of a revelation given to him long ago, whilst seeking a vision for his tribe in the days following the Battle of The Little Bighorn.
The level of research Simmons has put into this novel is astounding. As I followed the life of Paha Sapa through the different time zones of the story, I was awed by the great swathe of history I was witnessing. The story flits between several different times in the life of its protagonist (something which at first is a little confusing,) revealing a broad vision of the changing landscape of America. As well as The Battle of The Little Bighorn, and the sculpting of Mount Rushmore, other iconic events are entwined in the story: Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, The World's Columbian Expedition in 1893 with its landmark original Ferris Wheel, the messianic Ghost Dance prophecy, and the building of the Brooklyn Bridge. We also meet many remarkable historical figures such as Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull and of course General George Armstrong Custer.
Custer provides further narrative perspective through part of this book as his spirit endures within Paha Sapa, composing explicit missives to his lost love. The absorption of the ghost of Custer is related to another gift the would-be Lakota holy man has: the ability to see glimpses of the lives and futures of people he touches.
All of this is a clearly constructed plot device by Simmons, which allows him through multiple perspectives to reveal the panoramic sweep of history that is such a key aspect of this story. If there is a fault with this book, it's that its ambition - so plain to see, necessitates such a device. At times the book also reads a little too much like a history lesson. Another criticism might be, that as there is no antagonist to speak off, it at times lacks dramatic tension. Whilst I think this is true, my interest was held in other ways, such as wanting to know the meaning behind Saha's vision.
The style of the prose is quite dense, and punctuated by Lakota terms which add authenticity but slow down the flow of the writing. Taken together with the changing perspectives and the jumping around in time, this is not a particularly easy read. At points the level of detail - such as when explaining the technical aspects of the building of the Brooklyn Bridge - made for a rather dry experience. Albeit one in which I learned a great deal.
There is a melancholy feel to much of this story, unsurprising given the tragic history of the native peoples of the Great Plains. To Simmons credit he never falls into the horrible sentimentality which so often plagues writing about Native Americans. The native culture revealed here has many faults, but the spiritual subtlety of Lakota belief is still visible.
Paha Sapa himself is a great character. I liked him a lot, and found him to be utterly believable. He has a quiet self-deprecating demeanour, and a dry irreverence at times that I enjoyed. I also found I could really empathise with him, and at no point did he seem like a parody or stereotype. The story of his life, the relationships he forms, and the encounters he has are truly remarkable. His meeting with the woman who becomes his wife and the mother of his child is beautifully told. It holds a rare uplifting moment in the life of Sapa, otherwise so full of heartache and tragedy.
The ending of the book is a surprise, and a largely satisfying conclusion to the story. Although the last vision Paha Sapa has, left me feeling slightly incredulous. When I finally read the last chapter of the story, and then read the epilogue, I was astounded by how much of the story is based on fact.
This then is a meticulously researched, densely written, visionary tale of the death of one culture and the birth of another. At its conclusion there is a spiritual optimism inspired by science as much as anything else; a counter to the otherwise pervasive sadness of much of the novel. This book is unlike anything I've ever read, and it leaves a strong impression. It is a love story, and a story of the terrifying power of human ambition and ego. It speaks of our ability to destroy and to create, and of course how these are both twin aspects of the same awesome power. Like the gift of The Thunder Beings given to the crazy lightning struck Heyoka.
I'm not sure I can say this is a fun read. It is, however, so much more than that. It is a truly ambitious narrative journey across one of the most remarkable historical landscapes of the modern era, and a moving meditation on the power of the human spirit.