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Discussion Questions For Black Hills

Before I read Black Hills, Dan Simmons had written three of my favorite novels of all time.

And now I’m adding a fourth. Simmons is one of the most imaginative writers out there. Long may he scrawl.

The plot (spoiler free)

In the aftermath of Custer’s Last Stand, a young Lakota Indian brave (named Black Hills) becomes inhabited by Custer’s spirit. This causes great difficulties for him, which you’ll understand if you’ve ever been possessed.

That boy lives for a long time with General Custer’s spirit inside of him. The book takes a lot of unexpected turns. This is one of my favorite things about Simmons’ writing: it rarely winds up where you’d expect it to.

Black Hills jumps back and forth between the dwindling frontier of Custer’s time and the FDR-era. In the former, the boy Black Hills is searching for a way to deal with Custer’s spirit (which is surprisingly lusty in its ramblings), regain his honor among the Lakota, escape from Crazy Horse who is trying to kill him in very unpleasant ways, and fight the prophetic visions he sees of the tribe’s disenfranchisement.

In the latter, he is plotting to blow up the newly-constructed Mount Rushmore in response to a vision he received decades earlier.

That’s about as good as I can do for the plot. The story is wonderful, but as with other Simmons’ novels, for me, it’s about how it feels to read the book, not about the story.

Questions

I will answer my own discussion questions below. If you read Black Hills in June or had read it before, please feel free to jump in and do the same.

1. How authentic did the book feel?

Black Hills is full of Lakota words and Native American cultural references. The brutality is horrific at times, but feels consistent with other reading I’ve done about the period.

I was worried that Simmons wouldn’t be able to pull off the Native American scenes without making it feel like a stunt–do you know what I mean? Some of the biggest literary disappointments I’ve had have been when a man decides that he can write as a woman, or a person writes about a culture or nationality they do not have enough familiarity with. All of these things can be (and have been) done well, which is why it’s so glaring when it fails.

I shouldn’t have worried. Do you agree? Disagree? Did you feel like Simmons did his research?

2. Who was Custer?

Custer has received a huge variety of treatments in literature and in film. In Black Hills, he is a sex-addled ghost who seems incapable of reminiscing about anything but his physical exploits.

Every single thing I read about Custer gives me a different picture of the man. I have no idea who he was. Do you know?

3. And just for fun: choose a name for yourself

When I was on the Navajo reservation back in January, I talked with a historian who had been there for decades. He told me about a man whose Navajo name translated as: “The wind blows against his face.” This was because the poor guy’s neck leaned to the side.

“Yeah, it’s kind of like Junior High,” he told me. “Once a characteristic presents itself, you’re named for it.”

I am choosing “Long Nose In Book.”

How about it?

Josh

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  • Chris Baltzley July 7, 2010, 7:49 am

    You just thought you’d sneak this in and see if anyone noticed right? “… which you’ll understand if you’ve ever been possessed.”
    As to your first question, having spent a fair amount of time around some traditional Lakota people, my opinion is that the amount and quality of research that Dan did is incredible, right on the money, and was definitely not solely done in the library. He also doesn’t fall into the standard “noble savage” and “guardians of the earth” romantic mindset, but presents a people who were aware of their world and their place in it but were definitely human. (The only other book I’ve read where the author tried to inhabit a world significantly different than their own and actually got it “right” was Sara Gruen’s “Water for Elephants” about the American circus – and I lived within that world so I know.)
    As to Custer, I don’t know a whole lot about him, but most of what I have read does note that he seemed to be a very arrogant, self-important person and I think that the portrayal of his “ghost” was spot-on in that regard. And the portrayal of Gutzon Borglum fit everything I have ever read about him too.
    The book as a whole was a REALLY good read and I loved every minute of it. The tension buildup in the story around Paha Sapa’s plans to destroy Mt Rushmore was intense because I was never sure how Simmons was going to resolve things. Since we know that the faces are still there I wasn’t sure until the very last minute if he was going to stick to our reality or veer off into an alternate history.
    This is a very short review for how I felt about this book, but if I don’t quit now I will be writing all day. Thanks for choosing it.
    Chris

    • Josh Hanagarne July 7, 2010, 10:16 am

      You’re welcome, Chris. I agree about Water For Elephants.

      “You just thought you’d sneak this in and see if anyone noticed right? “… which you’ll understand if you’ve ever been possessed.”

      Guilty!

  • Daisy July 7, 2010, 6:39 pm

    I was captivated by Water for Elephants. I’ll look into this one. As for a jr. high nickname, it would be something like the “kids” in Glee, I’m sure; I was always singing or playing or practicing to get ready to do one or the other. So why did I major in science in college? Still wondering. It was a lot of fun, though.

  • Chris Baltzley July 9, 2010, 7:00 am

    Geez, it looks like you and I are the only ones who read this book. Too bad – they all missed a good one. Thanks again for suggesting it.