From the award-winning author of the Native American classic Fools Crow, a richly crafted novel of cultural crossing that is a triumph of storytelling and the historical imagination.
Charging Elk, an Oglala Sioux, joins Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show and journeys from the Black Hills of South Dakota to the back streets of nineteenth-century Marseille. Left behind in a Marseille hospital after a serious injury while the show travels on, he is forced to remake his life alone in a strange land. He struggles to adapt as well as he can, while holding on to the memories and traditions of life on the Plains and eventually falling in love. But none of the worlds the Indian has known can prepare him for the betrayal that follows. This is a story of the American Indian that we have seldom seen: a stranger in a strange land, often an invisible man, loving, violent, trusting, wary, protective, and defenseless against a society that excludes him but judges him by its rules. At once epic and intimate, The Heartsong of Charging Elk echoes across time, geography, and cultures.
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