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Stranger in a Strange Land
The historically inspired premise of James Welch's The Heartsong of Charging Elk -- an Oglala Sioux, stranded in late 19th-century Marseilles -- is so rich and intriguing that one fears the novel's action might not be able to support it. That Welch succeeds is testament to his sympathetic characters and the ingenious patience of his storytelling.
This patience echoes the consciousness of the novel's protagonist, Charging Elk. In his youth, he'd hoped to follow Crazy Horse; a "wild Indian from the badlands" who "never surrendered" to reservation life, Charging Elk finds himself prized in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. He chases buffalo in the arenas of Europe and marvels at the unexpected cities ("Once they looked at statues or pictures in a long house of wood floors and stone stairs; once they went to a showhouse and listened to a lady with large breasts sing high and big"). An accident under the big top, combined with a series of bureaucratic confusions, strands Charging Elk in France, where various people -- a newspaperman, a vice consul of the U.S. embassy, a fishmonger -- take an interest and attempt to help the disoriented "savage."
As Charging Elk slowly adjusts, learning French and struggling to find his place, these other perspectives suggest how good deeds are colored by self-interest and add new dimensions to the novel's world. Welch deftly illuminates many lives while always maintaining the narrative's momentum. What is daring is the patience with which characters' humanity is investigated and how this is managed within a wildly inventive plot. Charging Elk's adventures lead through love to murder and beyond. The writing's texture and dexterity are amplified with each complication.
The Heartsong of Charging Elk shows us unfamiliar lands from unexpected angles. It fascinates us with details of 19th-century France yet never forgets the homeland that Charging Elk has left behind -- a place that is vanishing and to which it may be impossible to return. This is the rare novel that is consistently surprising: The prostitute does not turn out to have a heart of gold, people do not always overcome their prejudices, and characters disappear from the plot when their lives seem to call from beyond the margins. "The Great Mystery works that way," Charging Elk reminds us. "All things have reason, but He chooses to let his children figure them out."