More MS news articles for Oct 2001

'Dances With Wolves' author Michael Blake pens sequel

Arts & Entertainment : Sunday, October 14, 2001
By Tyrone Beason
Seattle Times staff reporter

It doesn't take long for author Michael Blake to start waxing sentimental about buffalo. Not even when he's pulled over on the side of the road somewhere outside Odessa, Texas, fidgeting with a cell phone that won't hold its connection.

Maybe it's the barren, postindustrial landscape of West Texas that makes him nostalgic. Considering the roadside attractions he describes a rusted-out oil can, a beer bottle and groves of oil derricks where, it seems, trees should be it's easy to see why his mind wanders back to yesteryear.

By 1891, he says in a phone interview, the buffalo population of the Great Plains had been hunted down to about 500, or near extinction. But today there are 300,000, even though most are bred for slaughter.

"I'd like to see the balance bounce back," Blake says wistfully. "Can't we let the buffalo run free as well?"

But Blake, who wrote the 1988 epic Western "Dances With Wolves" as well as the Oscar-winning screenplay for Kevin Costner's acclaimed 1990 film adaptation, is more dignified than sentimental when it comes to his work.

His latest novel, "The Holy Road," (Villard, $24.95) is the sequel to "Dances With Wolves." Set in the late 1800s, it picks up a decade after solitary frontier man and "Dances" hero Lt. John Dunbar cuts ties to the white world from which he came by getting himself adopted by a Comanche village.

Dunbar gives up his name and becomes Dances with Wolves, a Comanche warrior. He marries a white woman who was raised as a Comanche. Together they have three children, a boy and two girls, in the village.

The Comanches respect Dances With Wolves as a loyal protector of their village and way of life in the face of encroaching white pioneers.

A difficult 'Road'

Anyone who has driven the Great Plains, which is dotted with struggling Native American communities, knows it was a losing fight for the Comanches and other tribes. The ending of "The Holy Road," which tries to stick close to actual history, is inevitable.

The Holy Road in question was the nation's railroad system, the name the Comanches gave the imposing rail line that carried white settlers westward toward their destiny of occupying the West. Hopeless as the Comanches' situation was, Blake said he felt a responsibility to continue their story in his latest novel.

"I'm pretty close to all the characters, and it's difficult, emotionally and spiritually, to write about all that because it's all gone," said Blake, who is white and lives with his own family on a ranch in Southern Arizona.

The character of Dunbar, a k a Dances With Wolves, is really Blake's way of witnessing and understanding what happened on the fast-fading frontier.

"With the sequel, I wanted to be there again, no matter what the consequences would be," Blake said. "I knew it was going to have an ending that was rather bleak."

Focus on Comanches

In writing a sequel, though, Blake said he needed to plow new ground.

"The Holy Road" deals less with Dances With Wolves and spends more time exploring interactions among the native characters, who build tribal alliances and appeal directly to the U.S. government to preserve their lands and livelihood.

One of the criticisms of the first novel, and even more so with the movie version, was that Lt. Dunbar seemed to overshadow the Comanche society he came to respect. Some saw it as a situation of "the white character coming in and kind of out-Indianing the Indians" with his hunting and fighting skills, said Tom Grayson Colonnese, director of American Indian Studies at the University of Washington.

Still, Colonnese said, others have praised Blake's authentic portrayals of Native American life and tribal predicaments, which don't often receive mainstream exposure.

Blake said his goal has been to portray Dunbar as a soldier on the lonely frontier whose nation has forgotten him, who evolves into "a warrior doing his duty" for a community that comes to see him as an ally. His humility is as evident as his heroism.

Whites who were captured by tribes in pioneer days tended to want to stay with their captors, Blake explained. Perhaps they were attracted to the what he describes as the Native Americans' "freedom and lack of encumberance."

"They were living a pretty primitive life," he said, but "that Plains culture had something that was very special. ... It was just simpler."

With his lobbying on behalf of creating a national Buffalo Commons, a game reserve of sorts, Blake is trying to bring some of that culture back.

Never the suit-and-tie type, Blake has known the simple life, too. As a not-so-famous screenwriter in Los Angeles, he penned 'Dances' while living out of his car or crashing with friends.

"I didn't have a dime to my name until I was 44," the 56-year-old admits. The success of the movie changed all that.

Blake started writing "The Holy Road" in early 2000, just before his wife, the painter Marianne Blake, gave birth to their third child, Lozen.

Between the first novel and new one, Blake twice battled Hodgkin's disease, which is cancer of the lymph nodes. He's been in remission since 1993. In May, Blake said his doctors stunned him with news that he also has multiple sclerosis, a potentially debilitating nervous-system disorder. He may have had a low-grade version of the disease for years, but tests are inconclusive.

"The doctors are baffled," Blake said.

Having defeated a life-threatening disease twice before, Blake said the mystery and uncertainty don't scare him. He has just finished writing the screenplay for the film version of "The Holy Road," which may go into production soon. Blake promises a movie shot on "a very large canvas," much like the panoramic "Dances With Wolves."

Since Blake has always envisioned his story as a trilogy, there will eventually be a third novel that probably stretches into the 20th century.

Blake said he hasn't determined any of the details yet. Whatever plot developments that novel contains, he wants to improve as a writer in the process.

"Every band's first album is their best album," Blake said. "I don't want that to happen to me."

Tyrone Beason can be reached at 206-464-2251.

Copyright © 2001 The Seattle Times Company