The Heartsong of Charging Elk
The considerable power and impact generated in this novel come partly from the actuality behind Welch’s fiction. In 1889 a young Oglala Sioux (one of the “wild” ones, who as a child had seen Custer’s bloody end on the Greasy Grass) is left behind in France, in Marseilles, by Buffalo Bill Cody’s travelling Wild West show. He manages to survive, not knowing the language, utterly and “savagely” ignorant of the culture and the rules of the society.
Charging Elk (who is about eighteen years old when he is injured, hospitalized, and forgotten by Cody the Showman) manages to escape the law and the Beast of Bureaucracy (the French model – Wakan Tanka preserve us!) not once but twice. The young Indian also survives an infatuation with a French whore and a prison term, after he had knifed and killed a repulsive, or pathetic, pervert, and he is eventually pardoned from a sentence of prison for life. Big, dark, and dangerous-looking, he still is vulnerable to all of the traps set by hostile or indifferent (and casually racist) society.
What comes across in the long but very rarely tedious or badly crafted narrative is Charging Elk’s dignity expressed without pretence, however underlain by fear and a terrible confusion. The Sioux warrior’s strange yet eventually powerful and enduring personality is made manifest, and we hear the echoes of an evoked reality as an exotic, unskilled stranger confronts the necessity to live, to work, and perhaps even to find some sort of love in working-class Marseilles.
Welch approaches the old, simplistic vision of the Noble Savage but never succumbs to it, steers clear of useless polemic, and rolls his large caste of peripheral characters in and out of the story with a sure and practiced skill. His solid focus on his central Indian character makes his historical-novelistic task a little simpler, and some scenes and purely striking. There are a few anachronisms (and some barbarous French) but at the well-drawn, believable and even touching conclusion, when the aging
Cody brings his show back to Marseilles after sixteen years, the reader will realize that this is a much cleverer, more solid, and more acute book than may have first appeared – harsh in tone but never unforgiving or too dark – and that Charging Elk’s very human “heartsong” was worth waiting for and listening to.