Black Elk in Paris

Written by Kate Horsley
Review by Eileen Charbonneau

In 1888, as the Eiffel Tower is being constructed close by, the lives of a French family and their physician are changed by a refugee left behind from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Extravaganza. A friendship develops between Black Elk, known as “Choice,” the physician, and the family’s youngest and most unconventional daughter, Madou.

His hosts soon learn that Choice is suffering from what appears to be a terminal homesickness, and yet are unwilling to come up with the simple solution as their fascination with him grows. The best they seem able to provide is a few days in the French countryside until Buffalo Bill finally comes to the rescue.

Narrated by the lonely Dr. Philippe, the story is less about Black Elk and much more about the Balise family and the manners and mores of Paris. Madou is refreshing (and of course therefore doomed to an insane asylum), but as clinging to her Indian as one sister is to a dog and another to her abusive lover. The novel’s tone shifts from philosophical to lyrical to mordantly comic, as when a coffin is provided for the not-quite-dead-yet guest. Despite beautifully rendered language and some transporting scenes, a reader might hunger for the point of view of the family’s American friend—and then buy him a steamship ticket tout de suite, even knowing that Wounded Knee is just around the corner.