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Sunday, March 1, 2015

James Welch

At a glance
The Heartsong of Charging Elk
by James Welch

Anchor Books
440 pages, $14

James Welch wrote well enough to make even the harshest criticism go down smoothly.

A Blackfeet/Gros Ventre novelist and poet from Missoula, Welch - who died in 2003 - wrote books that bridge the expanse of the Native American experience.

And as we all know these days, that experience hasn't been without its horror stories.

It's hard to read "The Death of Jim Loney," for example, or "Winter in the Blood" without feeling the despair that has been so much a part of the American Indian story. Yet as Michael Moore, a reporter for the Missoulian newspaper, said in 1999 of Welch's books, "Welch has ushered the Indian experience into the mainstream without sentimentalizing it and, conversely, without taking too broad a brush to the depravities visited on Indians by whites."

That's particularly true of his 2000 novel, "The Heartsong of Charging Elk," which is the December reading selection of The Spokesman-Review Book Club.

In the novel, Welch imagines a kind of history that might have occurred but likely didn't. It explores what might have happened had a member of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show been left stranded in 1890s France.

After a short prologue, the book picks up as its protagonist, the Lakota brave Charging Elk, awakens in a Marseilles hospital, unable to understand what is being said to him. It becomes clear that he has suffered a riding accident and been left behind to fend for himself.

Adrift in a culture that treats him alternately with reverence and suspicion, Charging Elk spends the next several years trying to find a place in an Old World that is exceptionally new to him.

As I wrote in 2001, "The result is a well-told tale of culture clash, one where the meeting of two complex worlds is marked by ongoing misunderstanding, fear and - in one dramatic instance - violence.

"Welch allows us to see Charging Elk both through his own eyes and through those with whom he comes in contact. We are witness to the rich textures of his inner life, to his longings and loneliness, the causes of his simple joys and sudden rages, his regrets and his resolutions."

Welch dreamed up the novel's concept during a European tour in 1994 in support of what may be his most critically acclaimed novel, "Fool's Crow." As he recalled it during a 2000 interview, he was sitting at an outdoor café in Marseilles, France, following a literary reading.

He had noticed someone in the audience wearing colorful cowpoke attire.

"He was wearing a kind of French version of Western wear," Welch said. "He wore blue jeans, a belt buckle, a pair of boots with buckles all over them. You know, not quite right, but he was trying."

More colorful than what he was wearing, the guy had a story to tell: His grandmother had come to France in 1905 with Buffalo Bill's show, he claimed. She'd fallen in love and married. He was, he said, a product of the union.

Welch thought it was a tall story. But later, back in Missoula, he had second thoughts.

"I got to thinking about that," he said, "and it sounded kind of fascinating, whether it was true or not."

Thinking turned into action, which for Welch meant research on French history and culture. He informed himself about every aspect of French life during the late 19th century, and then he used his new-found knowledge to give his novel an authentic feel, both for everyday life and for the people whom someone such as a Charging Elk might have encountered during his travels.

Welch, who had been born in Browning, Mont., and raised on the Fort Belknap Reservation, had come to the University of Montana to study creative writing. But early on, struggling to find a voice, he was taken aside by his professor - noted poet Richard Hugo - and given the classic advice: Write what you know.

"(H)e said, 'Where did you grow up?' " Welch told the Missoulian's Moore. "I could at least answer that and I did. Hugo, in his infinite wisdom and generosity, said, 'Go ahead, write about the reservation, the landscape, the people.' "

What followed were not only the novels already mentioned but a history, "Killing Custer: The Battle of the Little Bighorn and the Fate of the Plains Indians," a novel titled "The Indian Lawyer" - and, finally, "Heartsong of Charging Elk."

"An amply rewarding read," said the literary journal Kirkus Reviews.

"A novel with an expansiveness of heart and mind," wrote a reviewer for the Chicago Sun-Times, "an intimate analogue of Indian estrangement worthy of any readerly voyage."

"An engaging, pointed, heartfelt examination of culture clash and the debilitating effects of otherness," crowed the San Francisco Sunday Examiner & Chronicle.

"I tried to show that he was human," Welch told me in 2000. "I've tried to do that with all the characters in my books, (to show) that they are human beings and have universal concerns as much as anybody else. But Charging Elk is perceived as a savage for the most part, and that's how Indians were perceived in the 19th century and much earlier than that, certainly."

But not as much these days. And not in Welch's novels at all.

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