A native wanderer exiled in the oppressor's old country
Speaking of the "ethnic cleansing" native American peoples experienced during the latter half of the 19th century, US Bureau of Indian Affairs director Kevin Gover recently said it was long past time "for sorrowful truths to be spoken."
In James Welch's new novel "The Heartsong of Charging Elk," such truths are powerfully and movingly spoken. But this 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 turned out for native Americans. But in the end, the book is healing and redemptive, a revelation of the human heart and spirit.
As a young Ogalala Sioux, Charging Elk saw the massacre of General Custer's forces at Little Big Horn. Rather than move onto the reservation, as their families are forced to do, Charging Elk and his friends live out at "the stronghold." For a few years, it's a remnant of freedom, a place where the spirit of resistance leader Crazy Horse remains.
Now in his early 20s and on a tour of Europe as part of Buffalo Bill Cody's "Wild West Show" in the 1890s, Charging Elk has become stranded in Marseille, France. Desperate to find his way back to America, he's confronted by characters, circumstances, and choices that are challenging and sometimes harrowing.
Charging Elk is a metaphor for those without a country, or ones who have lost their country to an invasion of force and culture. Except in this case, the protagonist is lost in the place - Europe - where the dominant colonizers have come from. He speaks no French and only a few words of English. He may be a "noble savage" to some, but he is a savage nonetheless to most.
Still, he is helped along the way by individuals and families who take him in, give him jobs, see their humanity reflected in his. Here, Welch's depiction of 1890s France - the port and market, the cafes and factory scenes, as well as the other major characters - is worthy of Charles Dickens, thick with atmosphere and rich in ambience. There is a strong sense of place here, a place so foreign to the novel's hero as to be frightening and sometimes terrifying.
But all along, it's Charging Elk's desperate loneliness, his yearning to get back home that drives the story - even when he finally finds some semblance of a normal life and someone to share it with.
Welch smoothly includes flashbacks and his main character's dreams to enrich the narrative. Even after years in France - lost in a Kafkaesque bureaucratic world that has misplaced his official identity and imprisoned for an act that most people would find justifiable - Charging Elk lives mainly inside his consciousness.
By the end of the story, he has become nearly fluent in French and the reader has picked up a dozen words in the Lakota language. But we still don't know until the last few pages whether or not he will ever get home.
Welch writes from a depth of experience as well as with meticulous scholarship. He grew up on the Blackfeet and Fort Belknap Indian Reservations in northern Montana, and he studied under poet Richard Hugo. Like novelist Leslie Marmon Silko, who grew up on the Laguna Pueblo Reservation in New Mexico, he is much more than an Indian writer. This is his eighth book. One looks forward to the ninth, tenth, and eleventh.
Brad Knickerbocker is a Monitor correspondent in Ashland, Ore.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society