Beyond the wolves, 'The Holy Road'

September 23, 2001|By Jim Haner | By Jim Haner,Sun Staff

The Holy Road, by Michael Blake. Villard Books. 339 pages. $24.95.

When last we saw Lt. John Dunbar, he had gone AWOL from the Army and was being pursued through the snow by his former employer. He had already changed his name and become an Indian. And he looked a lot like Kevin Costner.

Now, the man called "Dances With Wolves" returns.

Michael Blake, who wrote both the original book and the screenplay for the masterpiece 1990 film, has finally produced a sequel, The Holy Road, that completes his tale of Dunbar's redemption and death.

Taken from the U.S. government's euphemism for the policy of forced Indian relocation in the years after the Civil War, The Holy Road focuses on the final ruination of the Plains Tribes -- an American holocaust of which most modern citizens are woefully ignorant.

For his first book, Blake was rightly credited with changing that. The wildly popular novel and movie not only told the story from the Indian perspective, it also hewed so tightly to historic fact that it garnered academic respect as well.

The Holy Road confirms that Blake's laurels for storytelling and scholarship were deserved. The man writes like a poet. And he weaves his tale, for the most part, with commendable accuracy.

Were he not so gifted, students of Native American history might be forgiven their wish that Blake were a bit more ambitious. For writers of his caliber have only infrequently been interested in telling the story.

Put differently, what Russell Banks did for John Brown and the abolitionist movement with his 1998 epic Cloudsplitter, Blake might have done here. Instead, The Holy Road satisfies as a ripping tale in the "Western" genre, but not quite as great literature.

The book rejoins the Commanche and Kiowa tribes under the leadership of the real-life Ten Bears. By now, the great chief is a wizened old man and the backs of his people -- including the former Lt. Dunbar -- are against a wall.

The buffalo have been nearly exterminated by poachers. The Oklahoma preserve assured to the confederated Plains Tribes by treaty in 1867 is being encroached upon from all sides. And the statesman-warrior Kicking Bird has decided to launch an offensive to cast out the white interlopers.

It is this bitter campaign, better known as the Red River Uprising, that gives The Holy Road its narrative thrust. It would be the last gasp of what was arguably the most ferociously successful warrior society on the continent.

Masters of horse and guerrilla warfare, the Kiowa-Commanche had dramatically influenced the thinking of men like Robert E. Lee and William Tecumseh Sherman in the years before the U.S. Civil War.

In the lightning-fast, "scorched earth" prosecution of their various conflicts with the Spanish, Mexicans, Apaches and Utes, the Kiowa-Commanche provided Sherman with a model for reducing the Southern heartland.

Ironically enough, it was Sherman who would orchestrate the ghastly war of attrition that swept them from the Plains, clearing the way for the millions of impoverished European immigrants to come.

But Blake leaves most of this saga untold, focusing on a single viewpoint and casting his Indians as morally pure primitives -- wide-eyed victims of U.S. imperialism, as enforced by the Sharps buffalo rifle.

The story of the American West is a whole lot messier than that. And in that mess a Great American Novel waits to be written.

Jim Haner is a U.S. Navy veteran and student of military history. Before coming to The Sun, he worked for The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Miami Herald.

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