I put “Black Hills” into my reading queue a while back because I actually grew up in the Black hills and thought it would be an interesting lark to read a novel about my home town. But because I was disappointed by another book of the same name, “Black Hills” by Nora Roberts, I stayed away.
Aside: Really, it was clear to me that Mrs. Roberts had never been in South Dakota. Why she set her romance novel there I will never know.
Later, I read other Dan Simmons’ books like “Hyperion,” “Summer of Night,” and “The Terror” and was blown away by his writing skill and his story telling. I cried my eyes out during “Hyperion,” sat up up in bed petrified reading “Summer of Night,” and was gobsmacked about what British sailors had to endure as their officers tried to find the Northwest Passage in “The Terror.”
But Simmons’ “Black Hills” is off the charts in terms of level of difficulty compared to these other three. I can’t even describe the skill required to pull off this crazy and complicated story. He chooses just one life span of a Lakota Sioux Indian named Paha Sapa (means Black Hill in Lakota) from just before the Battle of the Little Big Horn in 1876 to just after World War II (Late 1950s?). In between, Paha Sapa manages to touch such grand events as the Chicago World’s Fair, the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, the Dust Bowl, the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show, and the construction of Mount Rushmore. Along the way, he meets General Armstrong Custer, Armstrong’s wife Libby, Sitting Bull, Wild Bill Cody, Crazy Horse, and Gutzon Borglum (Mount Rushmore’s sculptor). And the writing skill that Simmons demonstrates by weaving a story around all of these events and historical figures to tell the tale of the Lakota Sioux as a people, the 7th Cavalry and the encroachment of the Wasichu, the White Man with his technology of steam engines, electricity and grand design, is nothing short of amazing.
Things I learned:
1: General Customer was neither a military genius who sacrificed his life for his country nor a moronic blowhard who sacrificed his men needlessly. According to Simmons, Custer had two things going against him. First, he had bad intel about the size of the Indian force (as many as 11,000 Indians were in the area.) Custer only had 600 men and he split them into three smaller groups for the attack in order to make it seem that large cavalry forces were attacking from many sides. The other impacting factor was that the Indian warriors did something they had never done before. For every battle in Custer’s experience, in the face of the cavalry, the Indian warriors would fight a bit but run away to save the tribe. At the Little Big Horn, they stood and fought.
2: Most American Indians hate the Mount Rushmore Monument and probably hate the Crazy Horse Monument more. Crazy Horse certainly would have hated it. He would not let anybody take his picture or make a portrait.
3: Gutzon Borglum had grand plans for Mount Rushmore. His designs included extending the monument into something called the Hall of Records where he planned an inside-the-mountain museum of sorts designed to hold the country’s important documents. He even started work on it in the late 1930s and 1940s. But, during the run up to WWII, the country had no appetite to spend resources on a mountain top in the middle of nowhere. In 1998, the Borglum Family and the National Park System installed a titanium vault into the unfinished hall and placed 16 porcelain enamel panels of the United States Constitution and other important historical documents.
4: The sex life of General Customer and his wife Libby was … forward thinking.
5: The Wasichu were not the only people to blame for the eradication of the great buffalo herds and the war on the Indian tribes. The Indians had a part to play too. They were just as wasteful with the Buffalo as the White Man were and they were constantly at war with some other tribe. Don’t get me wrong, the Wasichu have plenty to answer for in terms of innocent slaughter, broken promises, and just plain villainy. But it was not all one-sided.
Simmons included a lot of Lakota language throughout the story. Because I listened to the book through Audible as opposed to reading it from a dead tree book, I unintentionally enriched my experience. The narrators, Erik Davies and Michael McConnohie, went to great pains to pronounce the words correctly and to speak the proper cadence and emphasis of the language. I think if I was reading the book, I would have skipped right over that material. Because they spoke it out loud, I got a sense of authenticity from it.
If you are from South Dakota or Montana, you will thoroughly enjoy this book. Simmons walks you all over those two states and provides excellent descriptions of the site where the Battle of Little Bighorn happened, Mount Rushmore, the Homestake Gold Mine in Lead (my hometown), Deadwood, and the land of the Black Hills. If you are not from South Dakota but are simply a Simmons fan, you will marvel at his continued ability to excel within many different genres. if you are new to Simmons, strap in. You will be amazed.
 “Hall Of Records – Tunnel beside Mt.Rushmore with a titanium vault
Curionic. (2014). Hall Of Records – Tunnel beside Mt.Rushmore with a titanium vault. [online] Available at: