The Heartsong of Charging Elk

by James Welch

The Heartsong of Charging Elk, by James Welch

James Welch has been nothing if not unpredictable, in the twenty five years he has been writing. The Heartsong of Charging Elk continues that tradition. The story is contemporaneous with his masterpiece, Fools Crow, but there the resemblance ends.

Unlike the protagonists of his first two novels, Winter in the Blood and The Death of Jim Loney, Charging Elk is a man who succeeds in finding a way to live. The novel the book most resembles, once you look past the different settings, is The Indian Lawyer. Like Sylvester Yellow Calf, Charging Elk is nearly ruined by circumstance; like him, he reaches an accommodation with his situation that allows him to continue.

When Charging Elk escapes from the Marseilles hospital, where he has been abandoned by Buffalo Bill, he could as easily be on Mars. He speaks two or three words of French, a few more of English. He can read and "draw" his name. He has no money, no clothes, and no idea where he is, since he was brought to the hospital unconscious. Within a few days, he is arrested as a vagrant and, because American Indians are not American citizens, the French government refuses to release him to the embassy. He is released, finally, to the custody of a French family, and a few months later the other Indian in the hospital dies, a bureaucratic bungle occurs, and Charging Elk is declared dead. As a dead person, he is no longer of interest to the government.

There is no "Wild West violence" in the novel. When Charging Elk has finally achieved a certain independence and begun to build his life, he is drugged and raped by a well-connected French homosexual. Waking in the middle of his sexual violation, he kills his attacker, and he spends twelve years in prison for killing a white man. He survives this ordeal and is pardoned, finally, and released to buld his life again.

Welch moves the story back and forth between Charging Elk's memories of his former world on the northern plains and his slow, careful, selective adaptation to the new world. The challenges are as basic as finding clothes (the French are small; Charging Elk is tall) and learning to get along without a steady diet of red meat, an extraordinary luxury in Europe. The novel follows Charging Elk through a third of his life, fifteen years, to a conclusion that is logical and unexpected.

In the first rank of American Indian writers, three have achieved the goal that Welch set for himself: to be known not merely as an excellent American Indian writer but as an excellent writer who is Indian. The other two are Leslie Silko and Louise Erdrich. Stunningly different in their politics, aesthetics, and philosophies, each of them has contributed something individual, unique, and valuable to our literature. Each of them has captured something essential about the cultures that shaped them, and their books have changed our understanding of the land's original people. The Heartsong of Charging Elk is such a book, simple, powerful, and new.

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I have a page devoted to discussion of James Welch's novels, as well as others on various American Indian writers — Scott Momaday and Louise Erdrich — and one on mysteries with American Indian connections.

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