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The Heartsong of Charging Elk


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About the Author

James Welch is the author of four other 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 died in 2003.


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.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.

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.

"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

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