James Welch: The Heartsong of Charging Elk

The Heartsong of Charging Elk – When I first read the title of this book, I honestly didn’t know what to expect. Far from shedding light on the book’s topic, it didn’t even conjur up the remotest association in me. I don’t blame myself for not having a clue back then – while reading the first chapter, I realized that I simply haven’t encountered any comparable book so far.

Over the 448 pages of James Welch’s historical novel, the reader learns about a native American, an Oglala Sioux with the superficial English name ‘Charging Elk’. It is the late 19th century and the protagonist becomes part of a Wild West show touring through different European cities. In one of these shows, Charging Elk gets injured. The show sets off for another city, leaving him alone in Marseille. From now on, he finds himself faced with the problem of being an illegal immigrant in a completely foreign society with no possibility of returning to his homeland.

Due to his native American descent, the author himself has a certain connection to the book’s subject. The cultural influences of Welch’s parents, one from the Blackfeet tribe, the other from the A’aninin tribe, enable him to infuse his writing with authentic information on native American life, tradition and religion.

The novel is a mostly enjoyable pageturner inspired by true events such as Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and the Battle of Little Big Horn in 1876. Welch’s use of language is simple yet pleasing. While Charging Elk’s English thoughts are simply structured and thus easy to understand, he often uses Lakota words and his observations contain a lot of the French to which he is now exposed. The different languages illustrate Charging Elk’s struggle for integration and at certain points made me as a reader feel helpless as well. The managable number of characters involved on the one hand and the many detailed observations made by the indién on the other contributed to my pleasure in reading.

First published in 2000, the novel touches on themes like the disparity of cultures and societies, identity construction and the meaning of homeland. The Heartsong of Charging Elk successfully manages to show the interrelationships between these themes. Other famous works by Welch, such as Winter in the Blood (1974) and Fools Crow (1986) show similar theme patterns and have led to him being considered a founding father of the Native American Renaissance.

However, all this praise sadly can’t be left without mentioning a couple of negative aspects. Despite the enjoyably modest number of characters introduced, the reader does not learn much about any of them. Some, like the Soulas family which helped Charging Elk during his time in Marseille, disappear as abruptly as they entered the novel, which made me expect a kind of reunion until the last page. This abruptness is also apparent at the very end of the book. After more than 400 pages with lots of leaps in time, the novel just ends with a short scene in which Charging Elk meets some tribe members in the Wild West show that finally came back to Marseille. I was left with a feeling of dissatisfaction and the inner question of whether Welch might just have run out of ideas on how to finish his work.

Besides those points, I enjoyed reading this new-to-me kind of fiction. The Heartsong of Charging Elk provides an insight into some aspects of the native American way of life. Besides that, I became aware of how strange certain cultural conventions may seem to people from completely different environments – things that we perceive as ‘normal‘ can leave someone else absolutely puzzled.

Florian Rehme

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