The Heartsong of Charging Elk

James Welch, Author
James Welch, Author Doubleday Books $24.95 (448p) ISBN 978-0-385-49674-2
Reviewed on: 07/31/2000
Release date: 08/01/2000
Paperback - 448 pages - 978-0-385-49675-9
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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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