March 29, 2010

A Better-Late-Than-Never Review: "Dances with Wolves" (the book, not the movie)

Used-book shops and thrift stores- these are good, because the more you read, the less you can spend on your little... habit. If crack addicts could buy pre-owned crack, they would. Why should we readers be any different?

But even better than saving money is the other reason to pick through the badly organized, bent and wrinkled stock of these retailers. Browsing used books means discovering books of which you had never before heard. Unearthing volumes you once owned and don't now for whatever reason. Finally getting your hands on stories you've heard about for years but never read.

(And that's why books are better than crack. In the printed word there is infinite and breathtaking variety, but when you've seen one rock you've seen them all.)

Last Saturday I had only half an hour to scan a thrift store's collection of 59-cent paperbacks and $1.99 hardcovers before the employees closed up shop for the day, so I was lucky to spot it:

Dances with Wolves. By Michael Blake. "Now a major motion picture from Orion Pictures."

Speaking of discovering books I'd never heard of. If the pocket paperback had been a novelization of the Kevin Costner film I saw on rented VHS as a kid, I wouldn't have looked twice at it. My memory may have been unfair to the movie; I didn't recall that it was very good. Kevin Costner vehicles frequently weren't.

But "now a major motion picture" meant that a book called Dances with Wolves had been turned into a Kevin Costner vehicle. It's good to learn something new every day. I bought the book.

Michael Blake's 313-page novel is a fast read; I finished it Sunday night. As compared to the film-adaptation's full synopsis on, the two tellings of the story are similar enough to count. I guess I don't remember the movie well at all, because everything in the book was a big surprise as it happened.

Published in 1988, Dances with Wolves is a relic of American fiction, printed in a time when not every tale had to be a work of divine genius ten years in the making. The prose doesn't try to impress the shorts off its readers; neither dialogue nor narration attempts to imitate the vernacular of the time period in which the story is set; the author appears to have limited his historical reseach to 1950s western flicks. It looks like Michael Blake just sat down before the typewriter and wrote a book. And it's a good thing he did.

Character driven, emotional, the ribbon of a love story winding around its gentle plot, Dances with Wolves is not only worth reading, it was worth writing. I hope Michael Blake is proud of this book that I am not likely to forget any time soon.

I'm not going to write a summary because it would bore me and summaries of this novel are easily found. (And heck, if you've seen the movie, you know how the story goes.) So I'll contribute this:

The strongest statements in the whole book are found on the final page, in its final paragaph.

"But a human tide, one that they could neither see nor hear, was rising in the east. It would be upon them soon. The good times of that summer were the last they would have. Their time was running out and would soon be gone forever."

Dances with Wolves is not an anti-Caucasian book. It is not a rant against the United States.

But in those four sentences, Michael Blake reminds a nation that we are not built entirely on a foundation of virtue and human rights, no matter what people like to say and repeat and insist is true. This land of America is stolen land, a fact that few would dispute.

Nobody has to dispute it. They excuse it. They slough off the blame. That was then, this is now. I didn't do it. Get over it.

But if Caucasians are going to lay claim to the accomplishments of their ancestors beneath the banner of Western Civilization, then Caucasians must also claim the shame, the acts of evil.

White people aren't so bad. But we also aren't so great. And yes, the sins of our ancestors are our problem. Michael Blake got that part very right.

(I'd like to write something more original and thought provoking than this, but it's getting late in the day and I have to wrap it up. I'll make up for my lackluster blogging by posting this theatrical trailer for the Kevin Costner vehicle, which for all I know is better than I remember. Hey, I saw it back in 1991 or something.)