James Welch

"The Heartsong of Charging Elk"

(Reviewed by Shannon Bloomstran MAR 01, 2002)

The Heartsong of Charging Elk byJames Welch

At the start of James Welch's novel, The Heartsong of Charging Elk,the protagonist, a Native American of the Lakota tribe finds himself injured and ill in a 19th century hospital in Marseille, France. Talk about a stranger in a strange land. And much like the hero of Robert Heinlein's science fiction classic, Charging Elk does not grok. He does not grok the language, he does not grok the food, he does not grok the religion, and he particularly does not grok the people.

Welch's tale of deep culture shock centers on Charging Elk, a performer with Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. During an 1889 performance in Marseille, Charging Elk, ill with influenza, falls from his horse and suffers broken ribs. The show travels on without him while Charging Elk is confined to a hospital. Through several bureaucratic snafus, the American and French governments are unable to reunite Charging Elk with the show and he is forced to adapt himself to life in Marseille. He lives for a time with the Soulas family, humble fishmongers, and comes to learn the French language and how to survive in the bustling seaport. As he adjusts to life far away from his native Dakota, however, Charging Elk becomes acquainted with the seamier side of the wasichu (the Lakota word for white people) culture, carrying on a love affair with a prostitute and becoming embroiled in a murder. The novel ends on a hopeful, yet acquiescent, note.

Mr. Welch creates quite a memorable character in Charging Elk. A Native American himself, Welch works hard to evoke the reader's sympathy for the lost and bewildered Lakota. Imagine "looking at a pine tree in a large shop window. . .There were things on the tree, ribbons of red that wound around the branches, white sticks that stood straight up from the needles, and little figures and shiny round balls that hung from the prickly twigs." It's a Christmas tree of course, quite a foreign concept to Charging Elk. The novel has a ponderous tone at first, understandably since most of the "action" takes place in Charging Elk's mind. He struggles to understand his new world, able to communicate neither with the French nor with the few Americans he encounters. Welch creates a vivid internal world of Charging Elk's life before he joined the Wild West Show, describing the fight at Greasy Grass (Little Bighorn) and the ultimate surrender of the Lakota to the white way of life. In his mind, Charging Elk reminisces about his life in Dakota, although Welch sometimes is guilty of over-romanticizing this time. The best part of the novel concerns Charging Elk's life with the Soulas family where he experiences the first true companionship and familial affections since he left Dakota.

The novel is long, however, and suffers once Charging Elk falls in with a prostitute and other unsavory characters. It becomes less a novel of culture shock and more one of "this happened and then this happened and four year later this happened." The last one hundred pages cover over eleven years, far fewer than the first part of the novel, and although it is literally hard time for Charging Elk, the reader is left with the feeling that the years flew by. In the later pages, Welch veers away from Charging Elk's internal life, a strength of the earlier part of the novel, and focuses on his overt actions. One wishes for some of the sparks of empathy Welch uses so well early in the novel, and also for a more firm editorial hand. In describing the Provencal fish stew, bouillabaisse, Charging Elk's benefactor Rene Soulas says it must have saffron, for "bouillabaisse without saffron was just fish stew." The Heartsong of Charging Elk provides a few tastes of bouillabaisse, but ends up as fish stew.

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About the Author:

James WelchJames Welch was born in Browning, Montana in 1940 of Blackfeet and Gros Ventre descent. He is an enrolled member of the Blackfeet Tribe. He attended schools on the Blackfeet and Ft. Belknap Reservations, graduating from high school in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1958.

He received a B.A. from the University of Montana in 1965 and spent two years in the M.F.A program in creative writing at University of Montana, studying with the acclaimed poet, Richard Hugo.

He has taught at the University of Washington and at Cornell as well as serving on the Parole Board of the Montana Prisons Systems and on the Board of Directors of the Newberry Library D'Arcy McNickle Center. He has received many awards, including the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for fiction, an American Book Award, a Chevalier de L'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres from France, and honorary doctorates from Rocky Mountain College and the University of Montana. In 1986, he won the American Book Award and in 1997 the Lifetime Achievement Award for Literature, Native Writer's Circle. Fools Crow won the Los Angeles Times Book Award and the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award.

James Welch lives in Missoula, Montana, with his wife, Lois.

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