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  • The Heartsong of Charging Elk
  • Written by James Welch
  • Format: Trade Paperback | ISBN: 9780385496759
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The Heartsong of Charging Elk

A Novel

Written by James WelchAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by James Welch

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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

From the award-winning author of the Native American classic Fools Crow, a richly crafted novel of cultural crossing that is a triumph of storytelling and the historical imagination.

Charging Elk, an Oglala Sioux, joins Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show and journeys from the Black Hills of South Dakota to the back streets of nineteenth-century Marseille. Left behind in a Marseille hospital after a serious injury while the show travels on, he is forced to remake his life alone in a strange land. He struggles to adapt as well as he can, while holding on to the memories and traditions of life on the Plains and eventually falling in love. But none of the worlds the Indian has known can prepare him for the betrayal that follows. This is a story of the American Indian that we have seldom seen: a stranger in a strange land, often an invisible man, loving, violent, trusting, wary, protective, and defenseless against a society that excludes him but judges him by its rules. At once epic and intimate, The Heartsong of Charging Elk echoes across time, geography, and cultures.

Excerpt











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.

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.
James Welch

About James Welch

James Welch - The Heartsong of Charging Elk

Photo © Keith Buckley

James Welch is the author of four previous 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 lives with his wife in Missoula, Montana.
Praise

Praise

"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
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions

About the Book

The introduction, discussion questions, author biography, and suggested reading list are intended to enhance your group?s reading of The Heartsong of Charging Elk by James Welch. Welch?s vividly imagined and eloquently realized tale transforms a historic twist of fate befalling a Sioux Native American into an allegory of human adaptability.

About the Guide

As a young boy in South Dakota, Charging Elk watches his people, the Oglala Sioux, defeat Custer at Little Big Horn. When the Sioux are defeated and forced onto reservations, Charging Elk elects to live in the Stronghold, a campsite in the hills established by the Indians who reject reservation life and seek to preserve the old customs. Life in the Stronghold is hard, but Charging Elk survives to become a fearless young Indian. However, when Buffalo Bill selects him to perform in his Wild West Show, Charging Elk?s life is changed forever. He travels to Europe with the show?far from the Stronghold and to a world beyond any Charging Elk could have ever imagined. While performing in Marseille, Charging Elk falls ill and is hospitalized. Due to an administrative mix-up, the show moves on without him, leaving him stranded in a foreign land, unable to communicate. Over the years, the promised help from the American consulate never materializes, and Charging Elk eventually carves out a lonely life for himself in the ethnic section of Marseille. He drifts toward the seedier side of town, seeking comfort in an affair with a prostitute. The affair ends in a gruesome and bizarre murder that changes the course of Charging Elk?s life, giving him a chance to reinvent himself.
Charging Elk?s story unfolds against the backdrop of the intertwining and opposing images of the
naturalistic nineteenth-century American West and urban nineteenth-century France. His attempt to navigate between these two colliding worlds is a unique version of the stranger in a strange land story, an engrossing parable of human endurance.

About the Author

James Welch attended schools on the Blackfeet and Fort Belknap reservations in Montana, and studied writing at the University of Montana. One of his four previous novels, Fools Crow, won the Los Angeles Times Book Award and the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award. Welch lives in Missoula, Montana, with his wife, Lois.

Discussion Guides

1. Can The Heartsong of Charging Elk be read as an allegory of the Sioux Native Americans? adjustment to life on the reservation? How does Charging Elk?s situation in Marseille differ? If the novel is allegorical, what do each of the characters in the novel represent?

2. Rocky Bear explains to Charging Elk why Strikes Plenty was not recruited to the Wild West Show: ?These bosses think they know what an Indian should look like. He should be tall and lean. He should have nice clothes. He should look only into the distance and act as though his head is in the clouds? [p. 38]. And Black Elk tells the other Indians in the Wild West Show: ?I have lived in the wasichu [white man?s] world for two years? . Men do not listen to each other, they fight, their greed prevents them from being generous to the less fortunate, they do not seem to me to be wise enough to embrace each other as brothers? [p. 59]. What do these examples show about how the white men and the Indians perceive each other? Does the novel break down or reinforce stereotypes of either race?

3. Is Charging Elk a hero? Is he brave? Do the
cultural concepts of heroism and bravery differ in South Dakota and Marseille? Is it possible for Charging Elk to live up to his view of the ideal Oglala Sioux, a ?shirtwearer? like his father [p. 17], within the boundaries of French society?

4. Charging Elk states, ?The French people wanted the Indians to be dignified. And too, the young Indians wished to be thought of as wichasa
yatapika, men whom all praise, men who quietly demonstrate courage, wisdom, and generosity?like the old-time leaders? [p. 51]? Charging Elk aware of the irony that while he performs in a stage show that glorifies the defeat of the white man, in reality the white man is slowly changing the Indian?s way of life?

5. What does the author achieve by shifting the viewpoint from character to character, such as moving the focus from Charging Elk to St-Cyr and Bell each time Charging Elk is arrested? Why does Welch describe Charging Elk?s
memories of America instead of describing his emotions? Does this narrative device affect the reader?s ability to sympathize with Charging Elk? Why might the author want to distance the reader from Charging Elk at certain pivotal moments in the story?

6. On his own in the streets of Marseille, Charging Elk ?thought of himself as one who had no color, was in fact almost a ghost ? [p. 198]. He often thinks of himself as ?invisible? [pp. 200, 338]. But by the end of the novel, Charging Elk is accepted by the union of workers and he feels, ?for the first time since he had left the Stronghold, that he was a part of a group of men who looked out for each other? [p. 416]. How does Charging Elk overcome this paradox of looking so different physically, and yet feeling ?invisible?? Is this symbolic of a larger theme of racial inequality?

7. Why does Charging Elk become ?a little reckless? after the night he scares off the hostile sailor in the Brasserie Cherbourg? What other experiences from his past does this defining moment recall?

8. What is the significance of the refrain from Charging Elk?s dream which echoes throughout the second half of the novel: ?You are my only son? [p. 252]? What is the ?heartsong? of Charging Elk, and does it change or evolve over the course of the novel?

9. How would you characterize Ren?? Does Ren? treat Charging Elk better than other characters do? What is the nature of their relationship?

10. Why does Charging Elk commit such a violent crime? How can the same man who gives precious money to a vagrant mother and child [p. 217] consider scalping the policeman who arrests him for being a vagabond [p. 68] Why do Charging Elk?s charitable instincts to ?share with others? become ?replaced by an attention only to himself and his own desires?? [p. 243] Does isolation breed selfishness and permit the breakdown of morality? How are right and wrong defined in The Heartsong of Charging Elk?

11. What statements does the novel make about the dangers of assimilation? Is it necessary for an individual to lose something of his original culture in order to become assimilated into a new culture?

12. Is Welch?s portrayal of the Native American way of life realistic or idealized? What about his portrayal of white society?

13. How might one answer the question St-Cyr poses in his article about Charging Elk: ?Child of nature or born killer? [p. 312]? Is Charging Elk a ?lesser animal? as St-Cyr unconsciously believes [p. 103], a ?savage,? as the prosecution tries to portray him [p. 315], or just ?a man,? as Ren? believes [p. 330]?

14. From Charging Elk?s point of view, what is the difference between being inside the church, where it is ?warm and holy,? [p. 67] and being back at home celebrating religious rituals in Lakota? Might Sandrine?s card with Jesus?s image on it just as well be his badger-claw necklace
[p. 76]? Is religion simply a matter of personal reality, as Charging Elk thinks when he realizes, ?Wakan Tanka was not here in this land, had never been here! All those times he had prayed to the Great Mystery had been futile? [p. 427]?

15. Charging Elk compares his feelings with Nathalie to those he had for Marie [p. 385]. Are the relationships similar or different? How does Charging Elk?s relationship with Marie compare to St-Cyr?s relationship with Fortune? How does his relationship with Madeleine compare to his relationship with his mother? Are the relationships between men and women in The Heartsong of Charging Elk typical of that period in history?


  • The Heartsong of Charging Elk by James Welch
  • October 02, 2001
  • Fiction - Literary
  • Anchor
  • $16.95
  • 9780385496759

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