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Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Heartsong of Charging Elk

At a glance
The Heartsong of Charging Elk
by James Welch

Doubleday
440 pages, $24.95
hardcover

James Welch, a Blackfeet/Gros Ventre novelist and poet from Missoula, writes books that bridge the expanse of the Native American experience. From the fictional starkness of ``The Death of Jim Loney'' to the nonfictional frankness of ``Killing Custer,'' Welch has given his readers a better understanding of what it means to be red in America.

In his latest book, ``The Heartsong of Charging Elk,'' Welch gives us another kind of history. He imagines what would have happened had a member of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show been left stranded in 1890s France.

Welch's book begins to follow its protagonist, the Lakota brave Charging Elk, when he wakes up in a Marseilles hospital, unable to understand what is being said to him. Over the next several years, he strives to survive in a culture that treats him alternately with reverence and suspicion.

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.

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