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The Heartsong of Charging Elk: A Novel Hardcover – August 15, 2000

4.2 out of 5 stars 33 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

In the bitter morning of defeat, when the last battle has been lost to the white man, the protagonist of The Heartsong of Charging Elk faces a series of decisions. Should he adapt to reservation life or go wandering, a fugitive in a terrible new world? Should he become docile or violent? These are the questions at the heart of James Welch's novel, which is based on the true story of an Oglala Sioux who was plucked from the reservation to perform in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show.

The multiple paradoxes of his situation--a Native American acting out pseudo-Native American pageants for European audiences--are alternately comical and cruel, pathetic and poignant. "Of course," muses Charging Elk, "he knew that it was all fake and that some of the elders back home disapproved of the young men going off to participate in the white man's sham, but he no longer felt guilty about singing scalping songs or participating in scalp dances or sneak-up dances." Halfway through the tour, however, he finds himself laid up in Marseilles with broken ribs and a bout of influenza. In his delirium, he worries that the Wild West troupe may have left him behind to die--and since they are the only family he has left, Charging Elk flees the white man's "healing house" in a panic, hoping to catch up with his companions.

It's here that the novel actually begins. Welch has latched onto a fantastically rich premise: a Native American loose in a French city, delirious, hungry, and surrounded by ghosts. Charging Elk's odyssey through Marseilles is intercut with flashbacks, and his memories of the Black Hills--of life before his America was lost--generate the novel's most powerful prose. There are weak spots, too, particularly when the hero engages in some Wild Western violence. Passionate and unsteady, The Heartsong of Charging Elk tends to move in and out of focus. But during its intervals of clarity, it's hard to resist. --Emily White

From Publishers Weekly

Anyone who has read Welch's Fools Crow, that masterly evocation of life among the Plains Indians, is aware of his extraordinary ability to convey the experience of Native American tribal society. This book will stand as another literary milestone. Here Welch illuminates the experience of an Oglala Sioux trapped in an alien culture, lacking the resources to emerge from a nightmare of dislocation, isolation and fear. When 23-year-old Charging Elk awakens in a French hospital in 1892, he has already witnessed the battle of Little Big Horn and the incarceration of his Lakota tribe in the Pine Ridge Reservation. Unable to bear the loss of his freedom, he joined Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, but debilitated by the flu in Marseilles, he fell from his horse and was injured. Unaccountably, the show has moved on without making provisions for Charging Elk to join them. The plight of this desperate young man, barely literate in English, unable to speak French or to read any language, confused by nearly every aspect of the white world and a visible outcast from its society, is the burden of this haunting novel, based on an actual incident. Fleeing the hospital, Charging Elk begins a painful emotional odyssey. He is arrested for vagabondage and, when released, a bureaucratic error forbids him to leave the country. The kindness of strangers rescues him several times, but his basic innocence of French culture and his instinctive reaction to what his tradition considers spiritual evil culminate in a tragic act. Welch's achievement here lies in his ability to convey the way a Lakota Indian would have interpreted the wasichu's world. Questions about the hallmarks of civilization and implicit observations about the ease of betrayal and the rarity of true Christian behavior are integral. This story has the potential of melodrama, but Welch tells it quietly, in clear, lucid prose suitable to the restraint of his hero. Redolently atmospheric of late-19th-century France, this is a stirring tale of a man's triumph over circumstances, a gripping story of solid literary merit and surprising emotional clout. National author tour. (Aug.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Doubleday; 1st edition (August 15, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385496745
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385496742
  • Product Dimensions: 6.7 x 1.4 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (33 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,586,848 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Format: Paperback
Through the eyes of a Lakota man marooned in Marseille we experience both the declining culture of late 19th century native America and the excitement of a vibrant of port city in France. These seem unlikely settings but Welch's descriptions and characterizations make both come to life. We can feel the fear and uncertainty that Charging Elk feels as he finds his way to accepting the strange new world and his longing for the place and the people he has left behind. And we can feel the foreboding or distain but more often the curiosity and the compassion of the French people he encounters. It's a bumpy ride for Charging Elk and sometimes a bit plodding for the reader but the story works and was hard to put down once I got into it.
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Format: Hardcover
I know I'm going to take a big hit for this, but I found this book disappointing. Given how much I admired "The Death of Jim Loney," and how many wonderful things I'd heard about Charging Elk, perhaps I was expecting too much.
First, like another reviewer here, I thought the book could have done with a good edit. There are far too many characters. They come into the picture and then fade away without having much effect on what happens. There is also a definite lack of point-of-view. If this had been told solely from the viewpoint of Charging Elk, it could have been much more interesting, but instead, Welch chooses to give us the inner thoughts of almost every character he introduces, and unfortunately, none of them are very deep.
My main problem, though, was with the way the character Charging Elk is depicted. I hate to say it, but, for me, he came off as a sterotype. For the entire first three quarters of the book, he hardly has a thought besides going home, and what he will eat for dinner. He has no understanding of what is going on around him, and doesn't pick up the language. This might have been understandable for a year or even two. It is also understandable that he might have had difficulty making himself understood, but I would think, at the end of that time,he would at least have been able to read a menu.
The book does have its good points. The scene in the courtroom where Charging Elk thinks he has gotten his point across in his own language, only to be laughed at by the jury, was very effective, as were his choices in the end. All in all, though, I think that by sticking with a shorter length, as he did with Loney, Welch could have written a much better novel from this moving story.
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Format: Hardcover
Think of those old photos of Sioux Indians sitting stone-faced in Venetian gondolas or posing with Queen Victoria. What were those men thinking, warriors who until only very few years before had been riding full-tilt across the plains? In "the Heartsong of Charging Elk," James Welch imagines what it must have been like for a Sioux to travel across Europe with Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show.
Traveling with the show was pretty fun. Charging Elk and the other young men get to show off their riding skills, chase buffalo again, and shoot up a mock homestead. When they show was over, they went home to the tipis they traveled with - just like they'd done on the plains - joked, gambled, ate, and had a good time. The strange world around them was not much of a marvel or a curiosity, and very few whites made an impression (Queen Victoria was the exception. The Indians all liked her and called her Grandmother England.) Very few spoke any English, let alone French or Italian.
In Marseilles, Charging Elk becomes ill and was taken to the hospital. Wit no idea that arrangements had been made for him to rejoin the show in Rome, he leaves the hospital and disappears into the city.
He might as well be on Mars. He has no idea what people around him are doing. He cannot speak to anyone. The French are as bewildered by him as he is by them. But he knows that what he wants is to go home. Throughout the novel, Welch weaves Charging Elk's Sioux dream life through his days in working-class Marseilles. Will he fall in love? Make friends? Make a home in France, or find his way back to Red Cloud Agency?
Welch avoids the obvious ploy of making Charging Elk more noble than the so-called civilized French. He is no paragon, nor are the French universally beastly. How they get along is a paen to the adaptability of the human race.
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Format: Paperback
I was lying on my bed, snuggled into my down comforter and tons of pillows. I was completely immersed in this fantastic novel by the utterly fascinating James Welch. It was a particularly breathtaking scene, one where your eyes move as fast as they can, you can't breathe, you can't think of anything other than the story, you can't hear, see, smell, taste anything else. Suddenly something crashed in the next room of my house. And my eyes moved up through the text, looking for the source of the noise! I was so into the story, that I thought the sound was part of the story. It took me a few minutes to realize that my cats had knocked something over in the bathroom of my very own house!
The Heartsong of Charging Elk is, yes, that amazing. Charging Elk, on Oglala Sioux from the Black Hills of South Dakota, has joined Buffalo Bill's Wild West show, leaving behind his family, friends, and Indian lifestyle for money, fun, and not a little fame. Eventually the show crosses the Atlantic to Europe. During a show in France, ill with the flu, Charging Elk (then still a teenager) falls and breaks a couple of ribs. Left behind in the French hospital, Charging Elk is understandably frightened. He speaks very little English and even less French. He escapes and decides he's going home. Along the way he finds new friends, independance, and love. But does he find his way back to America and his Indian way of life?
This absorbing work of historical fiction is one hell of a breathtaking ride. I followed Charging Elk through the many difficulties of his life in France, laughing, crying and loving him all the way. You will come to care for, worry about, and definitely miss Charging Elk by the time you finish reading this novel. He is one character I will never forget and The Heartsong of Charging Elk is one book I will definitely read again and again.
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