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18 February 2010 @ 05:08 pm
Book Review: "The Heartsong of Charging Elk"  
Synopsis from back cover:
Praised by writers including Sherman Alexie, Leslie Marmon Silko, Annie Dillard, and Kent Haruf, The Heartsong of Charging Elk will stand alongside James Welch's award-winning Fools Crow as a classic of Native American literature.

Richly imagined from historical fact, this is a novel of cultural crossing, as Charging Elk, an Oglala Sioux, joins Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, journeying from the Black Hills of South Dakota to the back streets of ninteenth-century France. Left behind in Marsielle while the the show travels on, Charging Elk is forced to remake his life alone in a strange land. He adapts as well as he can, holding on to the memories and tradition 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. At once epic and intimate, The Heartsong of Charging Elk is a triumph of storytelling and the historical imagination that echoes across time, geography, and cultures.

Genre: Fiction
 The premise of The Heartsong of Charging Elk makes it sound like a great story. The book opens up with Charging Elk dazed and confused in a hospital. He speaks only Oglala and is therefore unable to communicate. Readers see just how difficult it is to request orange juice and milk in such a situation. Indeed, the story sounds like a fascinating read.

Until you read it.

Sadly, Charging Elk is full of a large cast of stereotypical characters that do very little for the plot as a whole. Welch introduces us to characters early on, only to have them disappear until the end of the story. Some of these characters do not even drive the plot foreward, such as the reporter St. Cyr who shows up three times in the course of the story to 1) provide monetary incentive for the guards to feed Charging Elk better, 2) write an article following Charging Elk's stay, which is then forgotten about after a brief follow up article, and 3) write articles following the ending case, in which readers only see one small fragment of. The character could be removed completely with no consequence to the plot or the story.

Furthermore, Welch does not establish a concrete rule for the story's point of view. In the beginning, we find ourselves immersed in Charging Elk's head - or at least as far as Welch will allow us. There is no internal dialogue. Instead, we find ourselves seeing what Charging Elk sees and hearing what he hears. Those who are unfamiliar with French will feel the similar helplessness that Charging Elk feels, but English words are not masked. This greatly diminishes the ability for a reader to feel what Charging Elk feels. Welch tries to take a limited third person feel yet allows readers to understand more than Charging Elk by telling us exactly what the English speakers in the novel are saying.

Moreover, Welch uses separate chapters or paragraph breaks whenever he chooses to jump into another character's head. This is very typical of limited third person novels with multiple points of view. However, Welch ignores his own rules and jumps into Marie Colet's head in the middle of Charging Elk's experiences. The exchange is frustrating.
As he smoked the cigarette, Charging Elk tried to think of something to say, something that would be polite yet hint at what he wanted. ... "Bonsoir, mademoiselle," he said, not daring to look at her. "Are you tired from your labors?"

She remained silent, staring toward the bar. The three men who had been playing dice were gone. The piano player had quit playing and was now drinking a glass of wine at the end of the bar, his satchel full of music resting at his feet. he stood alone, an employee in a frock coat that was too shiny at the elbows, in trousers too baggy in the knees, ignored in a house that catered to the rich and the indolent.

Marie had often watched the piano player, at home in his little corner of the room... (226).

Suddenly we learn the character's name because Welch addresses her by name as we enter her thoughts. For a reader who has become used to the section breaks or chapter breaks, this is startling and unwelcome. Personally, I had to double back and reread to see if we had somehow learned her name and I had simply missed it. Surely, Charging Elk was simply telling us she often watched the piano player. this is not the case. Welch completely abandons Charging Elk's view and remains inside Marie's head until two pages later where he has a section break to jump back into Charging Elk's thoughts.

That is just sloppy editing or writing - or perhaps both.

The story is also bogged down by the lack of dialogue. Part of it rests with Charging Elk's inability to speak French and English, but there is no reason as to why Charging Elk did not speak to himself. It would seem normal that he would validate his existence in a foreign country by talking more to himself simply so that he had someone to communicate with. It would also be reasonable to have Charging Elk speak more often with others as he gained more French or to understand more conversations around him. This is not to say that he would pick up French overnight, but he would pick up on words and general understandings of a conversation.

Though it seems part of Welch's desire to tell the story was to remark on the pitfalls of bureaucracy that keeps Charging Elk prisoner of France, it reads as "why the hell doesn't anyone do something?" This is probably his point, but it personally just made me want to stop reading, which is probably a personal flaw of mine rather than a flaw of the book itself. The other points mentioned though were also cause to put down the book. The ending leaves the reader with very little to take away. Charging Elk's character was not very developed, nor were the rest of the cast. It all sums up to a disappointment, which is unfortunate considering the story's premise was very strong.

Altogether, The Heartsong of Charging Elk could have had better editing, more developed characters, and more consistency. All of these flaws weaken the story, making it drag heavily from about 1/4th of the way in to the end of the story.

Rating: Overall, it ends up with 2/5 stars. I truly believe James Welch could have done a better job with this, especially since it starts off well. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way, he lost it.

x-posted here.