Lieutenant Dunbar wasn’t really swallowed. But that was the first word that stuck in his head. Everything was immense.
This Dances with Wolves review is brought to you by over 500 native tribes, a bloody past, the 1990 film of the same name which helped popularize the story, a stampede of buffalo, and last but not least, author Michael Blake.
For some reason, this has never found its way into any of my favorites lists, or into too many enlightened conversations with bookish friends. But that does not mean that Michael Blake’s novel about a disillusioned Civil War era lieutenant did not find its way into my heart.
Because in all honesty, in all truth, in all reality, when I look at it, Dances with Wolves is one of my all-time favorite reads.
I was captured by the storytelling from the first passage (highlighted above), and it is not long afterward that we begin to experience the subtle changes in Dunbar. The most obvious of which is a change in name, from Lieutenant John Dunbar and his identity as the Union soldier to ‘Dances with Wolves’, the man who comes to respect the Comanche people (in the film, the Sioux people), and learns to live off the land.
His go-nowhere assignment to an abandoned army post puts Dunbar in the thick of a different world. While he is lonely and isolated for a time, it is his encounters with the Comanche that keep him sane, and ultimately change him.
Note that not all tribes treat outsiders as well as the Comanche; Dunbar fights the Pawnee for much of the novel, a violent tribe hostile toward the Comanche—whereas the Comanche will adopt the man as one of their own.
His new life as a member of their ranks leads him to love ‘Stands with a Fist’, a white woman the Comanche have adopted into their tribe in much the same fashion.
Dunbar hunts and fights with a proud people, takes part in their magnificent parties, but witnesses the horrors of westward expansion, which sadly proves more awful than any Pawnee attack. If the reader’s first glimpse of a herd of buffalo thundering across the countryside is the most beautiful scene of the story, then the sweeping field of ‘murdered buffalo’ is the most disturbing.
Both reader and protagonist will realize that war and forced relocation cannot be escaped. By then, Dunbar no longer sees himself as Dunbar, or even as a white American, but only as the Comanche warrior Dances with Wolves.
What is just as captivating as the story were some of Blake’s remarks following the book. As a student of the American West, he spoke about the fact that nobody in the mainstream of education really understood the plight of these people, the likes of which Dunbar joins in the novel. In fact, until the publication of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown (which I reviewed when I was just a wee timid blogger) the American Indian was still presumed a savage. What also struck me was Blake’s comment that Crazy Horse of the Lakota may have been the ‘greatest American’ ever.
But there is also the inspirational story of a writer in Blake’s Q & A at the back of my edition. He was at a true low point as a creator, borrowing money, unable to find an agent, and seeing only rejection. Still, he believed in this novel and screenplay, and called it the greatest writing experience of his life. A classic rags-to-riches cliché would soon take hold, and land Dances with Wolves on the big screen. That’s what one calls perseverance.
As an added bonus, he turned out quite happy with the Academy Award-winning adaptation. In other words, it was true to his vision.
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All the best,