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Friday, 4 April 2014

FFB – Sequel to Dances with Wolves

The sequel to Dances with Wolves is The Holy Road, a beautifully written historical novel, and it truly was a forgotten book.  Dances with Wolves was published in 1988, the film was released in 1991. Michael Blake wrote the screenplay to his novel, so it is naturally very faithful to the book, with a few exceptions (mentioned below). Blake took some fifteen years before he could put ink to paper to continue the story, and the sequel was published in 2001. Blake now states in the 2011 reprint (Zova Books), ‘Unfortunately, what took place with all, including John Dunbar and Stands With A Fist, has never been known by the vast majority of American readers.’ This seems incomprehensible, that for some reason the book didn’t reach the readers in 2001. I’ve chosen not to use the book title for the blog – I suspect that perhaps it doesn’t pull in readers.

In effect, the Comanche are being asked to take the white man’s holy road, a road they have never travelled.

I hope this new version and publisher put that right, because the story is worth reading for many reasons.

The book Dances With Wolves is about the Comanche tribes, not the Sioux. Film producer Jim Wilson says in the Illustrated Story of the Film, ‘At first I had Oklahoma and Texas in mind (for filming), because the Indians in Michael’s novel were Comanche and they were indigenous to those areas… It was really the buffalo that pointed us toward South Dakota…’ Here, they found the largest private herd of buffalo in the world – 3,500 head. The added benefit of South Dakota was one of the largest Native American communities in the country, the Sioux. The Holy Road continues with the story of the Comanche.
The ending of the film is not the ending of the book; John Dunbar and Stands With A Fist don’t leave the tribe, but stay with them. The book however ended with the pall of inescapable doom looming on the horizon.

Throughout The Holy Road this doom of inevitability hovers. Yet the characters deflect thoughts of the heartbreak to come. We meet again Smiles A Lot, Ten Bears and Kicking Bird, and their personalities shine just as before. The book begins ten years after the events in Dances With Wolves.

For dramatic and historical reasons, Blake writes with an omniscient point of view and voice, which still transports us into the lost world and hearts and minds of the horse people. His prose is lyrical, and at times poetic, laced with heartache and humour. Take for example his exposition on Smiles A Lot falling in love: Hunting For Something’s single look that lasted barely a second turned his world upside down. ‘It was nothing more than a shy glance, delivered under lidded eyes. But it was directed squarely at Smiles A Lot and carried the power of a mortal blow. In that instant she changed from a skinny girl of barely fifteen summers to a woman of profound mystery whose spell was paralyzing.’ (p22).

The ever-present threat of the encroachment of the white man grows. When they learn of a fort being build nearby, ‘Stands With A Fist only blinked. She still could not move nor could she speak. She sat enveloped in a cocoon of blinding shock. The world seemed to have collapsed onto her meagre shoulders and she was so powerless under its weight that the generation of something as small as a tear was impossible.’ (p60).
Ten Bears is a prominent figure in this book, too. He feels impotent. ‘The Comanche and all they knew would be reduced to dust so fine that it could only be seen in a shaft of light before it settled on the earth.’
Not all is grim, foreboding, of course. Life has light and shade. Take for example Kicking Bird’s observation of clergyman Lawrie Tatum brushing his teeth: ‘The best Kicking Bird could deduce was that, though it lacked any hint of elegance or sanctity, Lawrie Tatum must be performing some kind of purification ceremony. Perhaps there was some evil entity residing in his mouth.’ (p110).

This is not the story about Dances With Wolves any more, but about his friends and his adopted tribe. It shows the coming of age of Smiles A Lot, and the confusion of a collision of two cultures through the eyes of Kicking Bird and Ten Bears.
Smiles A Lot undergoes his transformation: ‘All at once he felt whole, the connection of everything that made him one person suddenly evident. The wavering flames in Ten Bears’ fire were interchangeable with himself. They burned in concert for life – just as his own mind, body, and heart burned. And like himself, they were subject to the vagaries of wind and water, sun and air, wholly dependent on the Mystery of existence.’
We accompany Ten Bears and Kicking Bird to Washington where they witness the greatness of white man’s ingenuity and his absolute lack of respect for nature – as evinced in the slaughterhouse and the sewage system. While many Comanche agree to go into a reservation, others refuse and continue to fight, notably Wind In His Hair and Dances With Wolves…
The ending is sad, but we knew that before we began the book. Having read the book, however, we are enriched.


PT Dilloway said...

I hadn't realized there was a sequel to Dances With Wolves.

Nik Morton said...

It came as a surprise to me, too, last year, Pat. I read somewhere that Costner was asked repeatedly about the sequel and he'd say, it's been published, go find it, or words to that effect.

Nik Morton said...

Sadly, Michael Blake died on 2 May 2015, aged 69, after battling cancer.