The Heartsong of Charging Elk: A Novel

The Heartsong of Charging Elk: A Novel

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by James Welch
     
 

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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

Overview

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.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"One of the year's best works of fiction."
Chicago Tribune

"Moving... Absorbing... Magnificently imagined."
The Boston Globe

"Brilliant... A masterpiece... Charging Elk [is] one of the most resonant characters of our current literature."
Star Tribune

"Ambitious, moving and altogether nourishing... Welch's novel moves with sensual grace... A novel with an expansiveness of heart and mind, an intimate analogue of Indian estrangement worthy of any readerly voyage."
Chicago Sun-Times

"Powerful... An engaging, pointed, heartfelt examination of culture clash and the debilitating effects of otherness."
San Francisco Sunday Examiner & Chronicle

"Vivid [and] evocative... A story of survival... It's a familiar story, but Welch takes the conceit one step further, creating a Wild West show of his own."
Los Angeles Times Book Review

bn.com

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."

Peter Rock is the author of the novels Carnival Wolves and This Is the Place. Born in Salt Lake City, Utah, he now lives in Philadelphia. His email address is rock@aya.yale.edu.

Barnes & Noble Guide to New Fiction
"Not a casual read." Welch's novel is an "interesting, complicated, and completely different" tale of an Oglala Sioux's odyssey from the Great Plains to the back streets of nineteenth-century France. "Very well-written and entertaining." "A definite recommendation."
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
HAnyone 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.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Library Journal
Based on historic fact, this is a moving story of cultural alienation and assimilation. Charging Elk, a "wild Indian" (an Oglala who has not moved to the Reservation or learned English) is recruited for Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. During a performance in Marseilles, Charging Elk, sick with influenza, falls from his horse, breaking several ribs. He is hospitalized, and by the time he regains consciousness the Wild West Show has moved on. Unable to communicate with the hospital staff, and noticing that people seem to leave the hospital only when they die, Charging Elk determines to recover his strength enough to make his escape. After living on the streets for four days, Charging Elk is arrested for vagabondage, and his problems multiple. He and his captors have no common language; the American consulate is involved, although Charging Elk is not an American citizen; and it is learned that a hospital mix-up has resulted in the issuance of a death certificate for this "Peau Rouge" instead of another. Sixteen years go by before Charging Elk sees another Indian, when the Wild West Show again returns to Marseilles. He learns that the wilderness he left in Dakota is no more. But it matters less than Charging Elk thought it would, since he realizes that France has become his home. Recommended for large public libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 4/1/00.]--Debbie Bogenschutz Cincinnati State Technical and Community Coll., OH Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
Brad Knickerbocker
...powerfully and movingly spoken. The work is much more than a tale about an Indian man. It is sometimes sorrowful, as it would have to be given the way things have turnes out for Native Americans. But in the end, the book is healing and redemptive, a revelation of the human heart and spirit...This is Welch's eighth book. One looks forward to the ninth, tenth and eleventh.
Christian Science Monitor
Alan Tack
In this ambitious novel, the central character's odyssey takes us beyond alienation and separateness toward personal reintegration and community. That odyssey and the book as a whole not only dramatize the traumatic effects and ironies of cultural alienation, but also expand our capacity to wonder at the tranforming and redemptive power of the human spirit.
Native Peoples
Kirkus Reviews
Award-winning Native American novelist Welch (Fools Crow, 1986, etc.) tells a powerful story of a young Lakota who's stranded in France—and who will spend an ordeal of dark years in that strange land before regaining a life and his dignity. Charging Elk was only a boy when his Sioux band surrendered to US soldiers and became reservation Indians in 1877. Twelve years later, he seizes a chance to tour the world with Buffalo Bill's Wild West show as an alternative to rotting on the rez. Hospitalized with broken ribs and the flu in Marseille, he recovers to find himself abandoned by the traveling show and takes to the streets in confusion. Arrested as a vagabond, Charging Elk comes to the attention of the American consul, who gets him out of jail and into better quarters. But his supposedly brief stay with a kind family of fishmongers turns into years when French authorities refuse to let him go home. Speaking scant French and no English, Charging Elk eventually gets a menial job and moves out on his own. Then his loneliness places him in a compromising situation: a prostitute he's come to love betrays him to a black-hearted homosexual chef. Provoked into killing the man, he goes to trial and becomes a cause célèbre, but he's convicted of murder anyway and sent to prison for life. Incredibly, after 11 years of quiet gardening, he receives a pardon, and in a remarkable series of reversals he makes a family in Marseille and finds a measure of peace . . . until the day when a chance suddenly appears for Charging Elk to return home. Despite some contrived plot twists, Welch's study of a man forced to adapt to a world utterly unlike his own—and a richly imagined worlditis—is well sustained. An amply rewarding read.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780385496759
Publisher:
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
10/02/2001
Pages:
448
Sales rank:
360,560
Product dimensions:
5.19(w) x 7.98(h) x 0.87(d)

Read an Excerpt

Charging Elk opened his eyes and he saw nothing but darkness. He had been dreaming and he looked at the darkness and for a moment thought he hadn't come back. But from where? And where was he now?

He was lying on his back in the dark and he remembered that he had eaten soup twice during daylight. He had awoken and a pale woman in a white face covering had fed him soup. Then he awoke again and another woman with her face similarly covered gave him more soup. It was clear soup and it was good but he couldn't eat much of it. But the second time the woman gave him a glass of orange juice and he recognized it and drank it down. He liked the orange juice, but when he asked the woman for another glassful, she just looked at him above the face covering and shrugged her shoulders and said something in a language he didn't know. Then he fell back into sleep.

Now he propped himself up on his elbows and turned toward a light that entered the side of his eye. From its distant yellow glow he could tell that he was in a long room. He blinked his eyes to try to see better. Where was he? And why did the women cover their faces here? Gradually, his eyes grew stronger and he saw, between his eyes and the distant light, several lumpy shapes on platforms. He heard a harsh cough on the other side of him and he fell back and slowed his breathing. When the coughing stopped he pushed the covering that lay over him to one side and looked again toward the light. And he began to remember.

He didn't remember much at first, just the two women who fed him soup. But now he remembered the room he was in. He hadn't seen much of the room because he had been on his back on one of the white men's sleeping beds. It was a big high-ceilinged room with a row of glass globes lit by yellow wires. There were high windows on the wall opposite his sleeping bed. Through one window he could see the bare limbs of a tree, but the others were full of gray sky.

He remembered waking up once sometime and a man in a white coat was bending over him, his face also covered with a mask. He was pushing something small and cold against Charging Elk's chest. He didn't look at Charging Elk but Charging Elk glanced at him for just a second and he saw pieces of silver metal disappear into the man's ears. He became afraid and closed his eyes and let the man touch his body with the cold object.
How long ago was that? Before the women fed him soup? As he looked toward the yellow glow at the far end of the room, he remembered burning up with heat, throwing off the covers, struggling to get up, feeling a sharp pain in his side, and the two or three white men who held him down. He remembered trying to bite the near one, the one with the hairy face who roared above him and struck him on the forehead. Once, he woke up and he was tied down. It was dark and he grew cold, so cold his teeth chattered and violent spasms coursed up and down his back. He was freezing to death, just as surely as if he had broken through the ice on a river. He had seen the river for an instant, just a quick flash of silver in the darkness, and it was lined with bare trees, and tan snowy hills rose up on either side of it. But when he came up out of the river, it was light and he was in the sleeping bed in the big room and his back and side ached from the sharp spasms.

Charging Elk stared at the yellow light for a long time but he could remember nothing more because he could not think. He stared at the soft yellow light as though it were a fire he had looked into before, somewhere else, far away.

When he awoke again he lifted his head and watched the gray light of dawn filtering through the windows. A bird swooped down with high-lifted wings and lit on a ledge of one of the windows and Charging Elk recognized it. He had seen this kind of bird before. Sometimes it walked, always with many others of its kind, on the paths and cobblestones of the cities he had been in. When it walked its head bobbed and it made strange lowing sounds deep in its throat. He remembered a child chasing a band of these birds and how quickly they flew up and flashed and circled in unison, only to land a short distance away.

He had seen the big buildings of the cities—the houses that held many people, the holy places with the tall towers where people came to kneel and tell their beads, the big stores and small shops full of curious things. He had been inside a king's stone house with many beds and pictures and chairs made of gold. And once, in Paris, he had accompanied a friend who had been injured badly to a house full of many beds.

Charging Elk knew now that he was in a white man's healing house. And he thought he must have been there for quite a long time but he had no idea how long. Sometimes when he had awakened it had been light; other times, it had been dark. He had no idea how many sleeps he had passed there.

He was very weak—and hungry. He listened to his guts rumble and he wanted some meat and more of the orange juice. And some soup. He wanted sarvisberry soup, but he still didn't know where it had been that he had tasted this soup, or even that it was made of sarvisberries. He only knew that he wanted the taste of something familiar.

He heard a hollow clicking from a long way off, the only clear sound in an undercurrent of breathing, snoring, coughing, and moaning. As he listened to the clicking come nearer, he lifted himself up on his elbows and his body didn't seem as heavy as it had been in the dark.

The young woman glanced toward him, then stopped. Unlike the food women, she wore a stiff white cap with wings and an apron that came up over her shoulders. Beneath the apron, she had on a long gray dress with narrow sleeves. A flat gold cross hung from a chain around her neck. Charging Elk had seen this type of cross on other people and he almost knew where. He became interested in her.

Charging Elk opened his eyes and he saw nothing but darkness. He had been dreaming and he looked at the darkness and for a moment thought he hadn't come back. But from where? And where was he now?
He was lying on his back in the dark and he remembered that he had eaten soup twice during daylight. He had awoken and a pale woman in a white face covering had fed him soup. Then he awoke again and another woman with her face similarly covered gave him more soup. It was clear soup and it was good but he couldn't eat much of it. But the second time the woman gave him a glass of orange juice and he recognized it and drank it down. He liked the orange juice, but when he asked the woman for another glassful, she just looked at him above the face covering and shrugged her shoulders and said something in a language he didn't know. Then he fell back into sleep.

Now he propped himself up on his elbows and turned toward a light that entered the side of his eye. From its distant yellow glow he could tell that he was in a long room. He blinked his eyes to try to see better. Where was he? And why did the women cover their faces here? Gradually, his eyes grew stronger and he saw, between his eyes and the distant light, several lumpy shapes on platforms. He heard a harsh cough on the other side of him and he fell back and slowed his breathing. When the coughing stopped he pushed the covering that lay over him to one side and looked again toward the light. And he began to remember.

He didn't remember much at first, just the two women who fed him soup. But now he remembered the room he was in. He hadn't seen much of the room because he had been on his back on one of the white men's sleeping beds. It was a big high-ceilinged room with a row of glass globes lit by yellow wires. There were high windows on the wall opposite his sleeping bed. Through one window he could see the bare limbs of a tree, but the others were full of gray sky.

He remembered waking up once sometime and a man in a white coat was bending over him, his face also covered with a mask. He was pushing something small and cold against Charging Elk's chest. He didn't look at Charging Elk but Charging Elk glanced at him for just a second and he saw pieces of silver metal disappear into the man's ears. He became afraid and closed his eyes and let the man touch his body with the cold object.
How long ago was that? Before the women fed him soup? As he looked toward the yellow glow at the far end of the room, he remembered burning up with heat, throwing off the covers, struggling to get up, feeling a sharp pain in his side, and the two or three white men who held him down. He remembered trying to bite the near one, the one with the hairy face who roared above him and struck him on the forehead. Once, he woke up and he was tied down. It was dark and he grew cold, so cold his teeth chattered and violent spasms coursed up and down his back. He was freezing to death, just as surely as if he had broken through the ice on a river. He had seen the river for an instant, just a quick flash of silver in the darkness, and it was lined with bare trees, and tan snowy hills rose up on either side of it. But when he came up out of the river, it was light and he was in the sleeping bed in the big room and his back and side ached from the sharp spasms.

Charging Elk stared at the yellow light for a long time but he could remember nothing more because he could not think. He stared at the soft yellow light as though it were a fire he had looked into before, somewhere else, far away.

When he awoke again he lifted his head and watched the gray light of dawn filtering through the windows. A bird swooped down with high-lifted wings and lit on a ledge of one of the windows and Charging Elk recognized it. He had seen this kind of bird before. Sometimes it walked, always with many others of its kind, on the paths and cobblestones of the cities he had been in. When it walked its head bobbed and it made strange lowing sounds deep in its throat. He remembered a child chasing a band of these birds and how quickly they flew up and flashed and circled in unison, only to land a short distance away.

He had seen the big buildings of the cities—the houses that held many people, the holy places with the tall towers where people came to kneel and tell their beads, the big stores and small shops full of curious things. He had been inside a king's stone house with many beds and pictures and chairs made of gold. And once, in Paris, he had accompanied a friend who had been injured badly to a house full of many beds.

Charging Elk knew now that he was in a white man's healing house. And he thought he must have been there for quite a long time but he had no idea how long. Sometimes when he had awakened it had been light; other times, it had been dark. He had no idea how many sleeps he had passed there.

He was very weak—and hungry. He listened to his guts rumble and he wanted some meat and more of the orange juice. And some soup. He wanted sarvisberry soup, but he still didn't know where it had been that he had tasted this soup, or even that it was made of sarvisberries. He only knew that he wanted the taste of something familiar.

He heard a hollow clicking from a long way off, the only clear sound in an undercurrent of breathing, snoring, coughing, and moaning. As he listened to the clicking come nearer, he lifted himself up on his elbows and his body didn't seem as heavy as it had been in the dark.

The young woman glanced toward him, then stopped. Unlike the food women, she wore a stiff white cap with wings and an apron that came up over her shoulders. Beneath the apron, she had on a long gray dress with narrow sleeves. A flat gold cross hung from a chain around her neck. Charging Elk had seen this type of cross on other people and he almost knew where. He became interested in her.

What People are saying about this

Sherman Alexie
There are books you read once and put away. There are books you read once and never forget. And then there are those special books you keep returning to, reading them once or twice a year for the rest of your life.
—(Sherman Alexie, author of The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven and writer of the acclaimed indy film Smoke Signals).
William Kittredge
The Heartsong of Charging Elk is vividly imagined and wonderfully readable, a romance, a fable, and a sternly realistic story about salvaging emotional victory. Hats off to James Welch.
— (William Kittredge, author of Hole in the Sky)
Ivan Doig
James Welch, who long has been one of our finest American voices, here reaches the goal of all great literature: to transform words into worlds.
— (Ivan Doig, author of Dancing at the Rascal Fair)
Leslie Marmon Silko
I just finished reading The Heartsong of Charging Elk. I think Jim Welch has written a masterpiece.
— (Leslie Marmon Silko, author of Ceremony, a classic of Native American literature)

Meet the Author

James Welch is the author of four previous novels, including Fools Crow, which won the American Book Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Award. He attended schools on the Blackfeet and Fort Belknap reservations and studied writing under the legendary teacher Richard Hugo. He lives with his wife in Missoula, Montana.

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The Heartsong of Charging Elk 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
TheOldCheyenne More than 1 year ago
James Welch takes the reader back into the 19th Century for a view of life from several angles: American, French, Native American. As well as life on several levels: Aristocracy, working class, uninitiated tourist who knows little of the customs and almost nothing of the language. The story developement keeps the reader eager to know "What next?". I became so fascinated with my library copy that I made the purchase for future sharing and re-reading
Guest More than 1 year ago
Charging Elk is an intense book about how a Native American who maintains his sense of identity through his heritage in a foreign land, with romance and courage, the book takes you back into time when life was simple among the Oglala Sioux in North America to a more complicated life among the French. Very sophisticated reading. Enjoy!
Guest More than 1 year ago
My third novel by James Welch, and while beautifully written with elegant prose, the story lags and proves to be rather unconvincing...improbable events occur and much of the story becomes predictable and tedious...page 250 is where the novel seems to begin and while the animus of Charging Elk is clear and cogent, his story seems to drag.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is my favorite of all the novels James Welch wrote. The Heartsong of Charging Elk was excellently written. You truly understand the fear Charging Elk must have felt being left behind, far away from everything he ever knew.