If there’s one thing you have to give Simmons credit for, it’s his originality. He has a history of telling interesting, engaging, thoughtful stories under the guise of genre fiction, but he also has a knack of coming up with stories that you’ve never read before, and likely will never read again. You can find a number of historical fiction novels, and probably more than a handful of historical novels about Mount Rushmore, but how many of those are told from the point-of-view of a Sioux Native American who has the ability to read a person’s past and future just by touching them, and is carrying the ghost of General Custer inside of him, and is working on the Mount Rushmore sculptures?
I think I had been aware before this novel of Mount Rushmore being carved into a sacred Native American mountain, but Black Hills speaks at great length about that fact and the history behind the Six Grandfathers, the name the Native Americans gave to what we turned into Mount Rushmore. It was a sacred place for multiple Native American tribes, and the more you read the book and get a sense of what it meant to them, the more tragic it was that we turned it into a tourist attraction. To me, it’s reminiscent of what ISIS and other Muslim extremist groups are doing and have done to the ancient monuments in the Middle East.
The novel covers more than just Mount Rushmore in that respect, though. Simmons takes us through the lands the Native Americans once called home, showing us many of the places with history and legends of the people, and later shows what happens to them once wasichu (the Lakota word for the White Man) take over. One scene describes Paha Sapa showing his wife the Breathing Cave, the center of his people’s origin myth, and which sometimes steams in the wintertime as hot air escapes the cave in regular intervals, as if it is breathing, but by the time he shows it to her, a homesteader who received the land for free has boarded up the cave and added a door so he can charge admission into the cave.
The novel is tragic, and sad, and even depressing because of the real history behind Simmons’ novel, but it’s also all of those things because Simmons wraps Paha Sapa with those emotions to embody all of that tragedy into a single character. Each attempt at happiness ends in tragedy, and while those moments of happiness are strong and define his character in different ways, the tragedy is still the heart of the story. It’s what drives him to attempt his revenge. And yet, despite the fact that he has lost family, friends, and history to the wasichu, and has reason to want to strike out and take the lives of people who caused that loss, his character is such that he plans his revenge to involve no loss of life.
Simmons has done something extraordinary with this novel. I’m not surprised (he has written more than one extraordinary novel before this one), but he’s managed to combine history with fiction here without it being dull or uninteresting. I’ve mentioned before that framing a historical event with fictional characters is one of the best ways to get readers interested in that history to begin with, and Black Hills is a fine example of doing just that. Paha Sapa is a truly sympathetic character, from beginning to end, where even his few foibles make him likable and understandable.
Of particular note is Simmons’ method of formatting dialogue in this novel. It mirrors that which Charlie Huston uses, which is beginning each line of dialogue with an emdash, without any embedded cues to tell you who is speaking. I’ve been consistently impressed with how well Huston uses this convention — he’s adept at giving you cues in the surrounding narrative instead of having to embed a “he said” into every line of dialogue — but Huston uses that convention in all of his novels. This is the first (and so far only) novel Simmons has written using this kind of convention. It makes me wonder if he read Huston’s work and wanted to attempt this same kind of style in one of his novels.
Still, if Simmons is anything with his writing, it is that he performs extensive research, which is reflected in Black Hills. I was surprised to see that, in his research, he is also frugal. The 1893 Chicago World’s Fair features here in this novel, as it does also in The Fifth Heart, Simmons’ most recent novel featuring Henry James and Sherlock Holmes. It’s just coincidence that I read the two books so closely together (I literally pick my next book to read randomly from a list of books I own), but I’m glad I read these two out of publication order, since Holmes and Henry Adams — also a character in The Fifth Heart — have a cameo at the fair. It’s brief enough and occluded enough to be easy to miss, but it’s obvious that Simmons already had the idea for The Fifth Heart in mind as he was writing Black Hills.
Engaging, emotional, and educational all describe this novel. Fans of Dan Simmons shouldn’t miss it; in fact, fans of good stories shouldn’t miss it either. Simmons has consistently been described as a modern treasure, and Black Hills shows us that he continues to be so.