Cover image for The heartsong of Charging Elk : a novel
The heartsong of Charging Elk : a novel
Welch, James, 1940-2003.
Personal Author:
1st ed.
Publication Information:
New York : Doubleday, 2000.
Physical Description:
440 p.


Call Number
Material Type
Canisteo - Wimodaughsian Free Library 1 FICTION Adult Fiction Book
Corning - Southeast Steuben County Library 1 FIC WEL Adult Fiction Book
Hammondsport - Fred and Harriett Taylor Memorial Library 1 FICTION Adult Fiction Book
Prattsburgh Library 1 FIC WEL Adult Fiction Book
Wellsville - David A. Howe Public Library 1 FIC Adult Fiction Book

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Inspired by actual historical fact, James Welch's  tells the story of an Oglala Sioux who travels the extraordinary geographical and cultural distance from tribal life in the Black Hills of South Dakota to existence on the streets of Marseille. As a young boy, Charging Elk witnessed his people's massacre of Custer's Seventh Cavalry at Little Big Horn, followed by years of futile fighting and wandering until the Sioux were finally lured to the Pine Ridge reservation. But he prefers life in the Stronghold, living by his wits and skills in the old way. Ironically, it is Charging Elk's horsemanship and independent air that cause Buffalo Bill to recruit him for his Wild West Show, which travels across "the big water" to create a sensation in the capitals of Europe. Charging Elk and his Sioux companions are living a life touched by fame and marked by previously unthinkable experiences--until he falls ill in Marseille and, through a bureaucratic mix-up, is left behind in a hospital while the show travels on. Scared, disoriented, Charging Elk escapes--only to fall into a series of events, including a love affair with a prostitute and a shocking murder, that will change his life utterly beyond his imagination. James Welch, one of our truly great Native American writers, has taken a fascinating premise and realized it with utter mastery. Reminiscent of Fools Crow, his classic novel of Indian life, The Heartsong of Charging Elk is a haunting epic of culture shock and colliding ways of life and thought, sure to be hailed by reviewers and readers alike.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Based loosely on historical events, Welch's novel is the story of a Native American abandoned in France at the turn of the century. After years of fighting with the government, the Oglala Sioux have finally surrendered to the American government and begun to adjust to life on the reservation. Determined to remain free, Charging Elk chooses a solitary life in the wild, away from his tribe. His fierce independence attracts the attention of showman Buffalo Bill, and soon Charging Elk finds himself traveling through Europe with the Wild West Show. In Marseilles, the young Indian is injured and during his long convalescence, the show moves on, leaving him behind. Doomed to exile by the incompetence of the American bureaucrats who try to help him, Charging Elk lives as an outcast because of his exotic appearance and his inability to speak either French or English. His life in France is lonely and filled with confusion and longing, and as the years pass, and events conspire against him, he is haunted by sad dreams of his family and homeland. Beautifully written by an award-winning author, this novel is both poignant and enjoyable. Expect high demand. --Kathleen Hughes

Publisher's Weekly Review

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.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

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 (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



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. Excerpted from The Heartsong of Charging Elk: A Novel by James Welch All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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