Black Hills

Written by Dan Simmons
Review by Jeff Westerhoff

The story begins in 1876 when General George Armstrong Custer is killed at the Battle of Little Big Horn. Paha Sapa, a young Sioux, “counted coups” on Custer as he lay dying. He believes that the ghost of Custer entered his body when he touched him and has remained with him. The novel then moves to the 1930s, when Paha Sapa, now an old man, is an explosives worker on Mount Rushmore in the Black Hills. The premise is that Paha Sapa plans to destroy the sculpture that he feels defaced the Black Hills, an important and spiritual place of the Lakota tribe.

Although I admire Dan Simmons’s work, I wasn’t sure at first if I would enjoy this supernatural suspense story. But as the story of Paha Sapa unfolded, I became interested in the main character and wanted to discover if he would be successful in blowing up Mount Rushmore (even though I knew from history the destruction of this mighty edifice never happened). I didn’t appreciate how Simmons continued, throughout the novel, to switch from past to present from one chapter to the next. I would have enjoyed the novel more if he would have written it in timeline order. Custer talks both to his wife and to Paha Sapa, and he is very explicit sexually when he tries to speak to his wife. I couldn’t understand the purpose of making Custer’s desires so graphic.

I still would recommend this novel. It is well-written (even with my qualifications mentioned earlier); his characters are interesting and well developed, and the descriptions of the Black Hills are exceptional. If you enjoy Indian supernatural fiction, you will like this novel.