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Black Hills, by Nora Roberts

Black Hills

I believe it is no secret that I enjoy most of what Ms Roberts writes to one degree or another. Like so many things in life, this is a two-edged sword. While this is good because it means that I can look forward to a number of books each year that, odds are, I’ll enjoy, it also raises my expectations as to the quality of each new novel. Ninny that I am, this may mean that I avoid reading the next book for a bit…

Yeah, I’m an idiot, go ahead and laugh.

After avoiding anything remotely resembling spoilers for more than six weeks, I finally cracked open my signed copy* of Black Hills last week—and stayed up all night reading it, all four hundred and seventy two pages of it. After reading the last line, I closed the book, sighed happily, went about my daily business with all the energy of a half dead mouse and, come evening, cracked the book open on the first page again.

From the hardcover dust jacket:

A summer at his grandparents’ South Dakota ranch is not eleven-year-old Cooper Sullivan’s idea of a good time. But things are a bit more bearable now that he’s discovered the neighbor girl, Lil Chance, and her homemade batting cage. Even horseback riding isn’t as awful as Coop thought it would be. Each year, with Coop’s annual summer visit, their friendship deepens from innocent games to stolen kisses, but there is one shared experience that will forever haunt them: the terrifying discovery of a hiker’s body.

As the seasons change and the years roll by, Lil remains steadfast to her aspiration of becoming a wildlife biologist and protecting her family land, while Coop struggles with his father’s demands that he attend law school and join the family firm. Twelve years after they last walked together hand in hand, fate has brought them back to the Black Hills when the people and things they hold most dear need them most.

Coop recently left his fast-paced life as an investigator in New York to take care of his aging grandparents and the ranch that he has come to call home. Though the memory of his touch still haunts her, Lil has let nothing stop her dream of opening the Chance Wildlife Refuge, but something… or someone… has been keeping a close watch. When small pranks and acts of destruction escalate into the heartless killing of Lil’s beloved cougar, memories of an unsolved murder in these very hills have Coop springing to action to keep Lil safe.

Lil and Coop know the natural dangers that lurk in the wild landscape of the Black Hills. Now they must work together to unearth a killer of twisted and unnatural instincts who has singled them out as prey.

Not the worst blurb ever, even if it makes the entire book sound melodramatic when it’s just not. Main quibble: the cougar killed is not the beloved cougar, but a wild one.

The first few chapters of the novel introduce not only the main characters—Lillian “Lil” Chance and her parents, Jenna and Joe; Cooper “Coop” Sullivan and his grandparents, Sam and Lucy Wilks, Farley, the boy Lil’s family fostered so many years ago. Tansy, Lil’s long-time friend as well as the refuge’s resident zoologist. The local sheriff, neighbors, etc.—but also a place and a way of life that is, for many readers, almost idyllic in its difference.

When the story begins, Coop is just eleven and Lil not yet ten. He is a city creature, the only child of a wealthy, cold and manipulative lawyer and his self-centered wife, who has been cast among strangers and into an alien universe for the summer. She is a well-loved child, happy with her life, her family and her world. That summer a deep, abiding friendship springs up between these two children. These scenes are wonderfully written; I believe Ms Roberts writes children better than most people. Their fears, their feelings, their reactions, their interactions with other children, with adults and with the world around them are just perfectly rendered.

As it happens with children, Lil and Coop grow up, and their friendship changes into love—for a time. As adults, they seem to be looking for different things out of life and, after trying to hold the relationship together for a couple of years—he living in New York, she attending college in the Midwest—they part ways. Calmly, amicably, reasonably, like the adults they are. *coughyeahrightcough*


Which brings us to present day South Dakota. It’s winter and Lil is back from a six month long research trip to the Peruvian Andes to study pumas. While she was away, Cooper has returned home to his grandparents’ ranch—for good this time.

Lil is a great heroine. She is strong because she was born strong and her family and environment nurtured that strength. Contrary to many other strong heroines, her childhood and youth are happy ones. Her major disappointment in life is that her heart was broken by her first love—something most people can identify with. However, everything else in her life is going according to her dreams. Her studies, her career, her wildlife refuge, her research.

Mind, all these accomplishments haven’t come easily. She has had to work, and work very hard, for each goal, each stage. Not the least of these stages has been to get over Cooper. For example, these are Lil’s thoughts upon learning that he’s now living in the Black Hills:

“Besides, she had nothing to hate him for.

Just because he’d broken her heart, then squeezed the still dripping juices of it onto the ground so they had clung to his boot heels when he’d walked away from her—really, was that a reason to hate anyone?” (p. 89, first ed.)

Mature, adult, rational… heh.

Emotionally, Cooper has a much shakier foundation. From the first page, the reader can feel his feelings of inadequacy. Reacting to his father’s distant and disapproving manner, Coop has grown to believe that he is a) fundamentally unlovable, and b) a failure who just can’t measure up. As he grows older, he understands why he has felt this way but, as is often the way with feelings, he can’t really get over this.

Particularly when he has also grown up seeing how together Lil is. From a preteen she has known what she wants and by God, she’ll get it! While he himself doesn’t even know what he wants to do, let alone whether he’ll be any good at it. And so, it is he who broaches the subject of breaking up—even though he never stopped loving Lil—because he needs to prove, to himself, his father, the world, that he can make something of himself.

This is the setup for the conflict between the two main characters, and it would have made for a great romance on its own, for each of them has to overcome the internal obstacles that their own personalities and life experiences have built between them. Left to their own devices and proximity, I am confident that Lil and Cooper would have found their way back to each other.

However, Ms Roberts provides an external conflict as an accelerant, greatly speeding this process. Someone is playing nasty and dangerous games with the people and animals at Chance Wildlife Refuge, and there are signs this person is fixated on Lil. Whatever his faults (which really are more than a handful—arrogance topping the list by a wide margin), Cooper is not about to leave her to face this unknown danger on her own.

They say that proximity breeds contempt, but it also fuels desire and forces people to face their hidden motivations and feelings, and so Lil and Coop have to face the unresolved issues between them as they hunt—and are hunted.

Now, I really liked the mystery—or rather suspense—side of the novel, I think it was very well done. However, my favorite parts were the animals, the refuge, and the secondary characters. Several of these had little screen time, yet they came alive in the pages.

On the matter of Lil’s refuge, I must say that synchronicity can be a startling phenomenon indeed. Just two days ago I posted about the financial struggle that Wildlife WayStation has been facing for months—this struggle is shown vividly in Black Hills.

Then, there was a conversation, not too long ago, at the Book Binge on whether authors should “push their personal beliefs” to the readers in a novel. My own take then was that it all depends on how it’s done—if those beliefs are in character for one or more of the people in the story, then why on earth not? And that is the case for Lil, the Chance Wildlife Refuge and, I believe, Ms Roberts.

Black Hills is another great novel by a very accomplished writer. 9 out of 10

*yes, I had to mention that—and this is why.


  • Throwmearope
    September 5
    3:11 pm

    I am totally with you on this one AL. Unusual for us to agree, I know.


  • I have to say, that’s one of the most beautiful covers I’ve ever seen!


  • Is this one a stand-alone or part of a series?


  • Throwmearope, wow! 😀 ain’t that cool? *marking calendar* 😉

    Ms Howard, isn’t it?

    Kristie, my lovely friend, it’s a stand alone. It’s also a wonderfully long novel–it missed the 500 page mark just narrowly. Which made me a very happy reader indeed.


  • Michelle(mlg)
    September 5
    4:51 pm

    I really enjoyed it also. I also noted the book blurb and was worried about her cougar but I figured Nora wouldn’t kill off 2 kitties-LOL. I really enjoy how well she fleshes out the secondary characters.


  • Janet W
    September 5
    10:59 pm

    I did exactly what you did. Read it (make that gobbled it), finished it, went to bed and then started over again. Wash rinse repeat. I got to be a joke on my family reunion on the beach — “Haven’t you read that book already?” Glad you liked it!


  • I thought this book was spectacular. Now aren’t you sorry you waited so long to read it? 😉


  • Bev Stephans
    September 10
    3:07 am

    I too, waited until just the other day to read “Black Hills”. I didn’t have any special reason for waiting, except the TBR pile gets bigger every day. I thought it was her best book since “Blue Smoke” and I really loved that one.


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