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.)
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