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The Heartsong of Charging Elk

3.88 of 5 stars 3.88  ·  rating details  ·  487 ratings  ·  52 reviews
From the award-winning author of the Native American classic Fools Crow, a richly crafted novel of cultural crossing that is a triumph of storytelling and the historical imagination.

Charging Elk, an Oglala Sioux, joins Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show and journeys from the Black Hills of South Dakota to the back streets of nineteenth-century Marseille. Left behind in a Marse...more
Paperback, 448 pages
Published October 2nd 2001 by Anchor (first published 2000)
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Native American Fiction
102nd out of 464 books — 432 voters
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Best Native American/First Nations Fiction
28th out of 275 books — 191 voters

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Community Reviews

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The novel opens with Charging Elk, an Oglala Sioux, waking up in a French hospital near the turn of the 20th century after already living through the Battle of Little Big Horn, the forced relocation of his nation to a reservation, and a stint with Buffalo Bill's Wild West show. It was in this show that he fell ill while on tour in France, and now he is left in the hospital and the show has moved on without him. Charging Elk leaves the hospital and starts on a journey that he hopes will eventuall...more
It is hard to read a book as The Heartsong of Charging Elk by James Welch which has such a heavy atmosphere of despondency and confusion. As I finish it, I find it difficult to shake the melancholy of the novel, even though it ended on a positive note.

Charging Elk is a young Lakota who signs up with The Buffalo Bill show and toured through France. He has had a wild adolescence living with a friend in the wild and refusing to go to the reservation, but when the opportunity presents itself he join...more
Honestly, I thought this was a lukewarm and boring book. Granted, it's an interesting idea for a story, and some parts were intriguing. Also, Welch is a skilled writer capable of creating thoughtful passages. Overall, though, this one just didn't touch me. I felt little to no urgency while reading, and Charging Elk just didn't spark for me as a compelling character. I would recommend this to readers interested in Westerns and the Wild West -- which I am not. Perhaps they will get more from it th...more
I really wanted to like this a lot, and the story is fascinating -- based on the true event when an Indian with Buffalo Bill Cody's show is left behind in Paris -- but for some reason this book was just not that great. I kept reading, thinking, "Get better, get better!" and it never really did.
Megan Jones
I randomly found this at the used bookstore and decided to pick-it-up mainly because it was endorsed by Sherman Alexie, my favorite. I was intrigued by the plot throughout the novel, which was more complex than I anticipated. Not knowing much about the French culture, I found this book enlightening for it's cultural and historical aspects. It resonated many of the Native American issues presented by Alexie, which I am familiar with, although in a much more up-front literary style, rather than Al...more
Overall Thoughts:
The Heartsong of Charging Elk had a great premise, but it was not lived up to. Welch is inconsistent with his POV rules, the plot gets stale, and the characters are very stereotypical and flat. There is also very little dialogue.

1 out of 5, meaning it was nearly impossible to finish.

Read at own risk / Best to Rent from Library

Detailed Review:
The premise of The Heartsong of Charging Elk makes it sound like a great story. The book opens up with Chargin...more
Welch died is 2003, three after this, his fifth and last, novel was published. It is the second novel I’ve read of his—the first was read a very long time ago and is only dimly remembered unfortunately—and it’s a very good one. As a boy Charging Elk, an Oglala Sioux, witnessed the great Sioux victory over Custer and the 7th Cavalry on the Greasy Grass. But soon after that triumph the Sioux were coming in, unable to sustain their way of life on the plains. Charging Elk and his friend Strikes Plen...more
As per usual with novels I read for school, I did not read the back of the book, as it tends to ruin the first half of the story for me. For this reason, I was rather surprised, and dismayed, when I found out this would be all about Charging Elk in fin-de-siécle Marseille. I was hoping for something that would have more to do with Native Americans in their homeland, but alas.

Perhaps it is because I had to read this book in one weekend, but it felt rather long. Also, the story hardly ever seemed...more
OK, so I love James Welch. Really. And I actually really enjoyed this book. The sense of Charging Elk as a stranger in a strange land is compelling. He begins to adapt, but will still always seem an outsider to the French, yet also slowly becomes an outsider to his own past way of life, and realizes he can never return home to the Great Plains and his beloved He Sapa. The problems I had reading this were that Charging Elk at first seemed a bit stereotypical - the cardboard "Indian" who is two pa...more
James Welch's last novel, "The Heartsong of Charging Elk," left me flailing for what to say.

I'd read all his previous novels and they feature believable plots. But the action in this book lurches into improbablity. Without giving anything away, what happens to Charging Elk in France at several points doesn't work for an accomplished novelist. Welch, perhaps unfortunately, must write characters that don't suffer events which provoke me to say, "Oh, c'mon." After all, Welch was no hack; therefore...more
Welch hit a little close to home with this novel. As someone who has lived cross-cultural transitions, language barriers (including those where I thought the barrier didn't exist and that ended up being a rather big barrier), as someone who has cyclically (and eternally?) pondered the question of "where is home?" and who wonders why a passport needs to carry more information than names and place of birth and present address, who feels she has lived and sometimes still lives in that in-between st...more
I grabbed this one from someone in my book club who loved it; I can say it is a fascinating story. Probably a 3.5 stars? It is certainly historical, and there are some novel elements (details of daily life, unfolding of plot), but the writing was so forced in many places that I almost would have preferred to simply read the true story of Charging Elk's life. In the author's dreamed-up version, Charging Elk has some definitely painful challenges, but he and the people he meets become predictable...more
Linda Maxson
I just realized that this book is mostly set in France. Interesting that it and another top favorite share that in common. What else binds these together? The individual facing challenges (in this case, not-so-existential) overcoming, maybe even thriving.
In The Heartsong of Charging Elk, author James Welch has captured a resiliency of spirit that will haunt the reader long after the book is finished and put away. The book was written over ten years ago, and as I have read other stories by Welch, I'm not sure why I never picked this one up, but I didn't. As much as I feel that James Welch was a brilliant writer, his stories, with the exception of Fools Crow, always left me too sad; however, a librarian in Browning chose it as a discussion group b...more
Fascinating piece of historical fiction about Charging Elk, a Native American performer with Buffalo Bill's Wild West show in France, who was hospitalized and consequently left behind as the show moved on to other venues in Europe. His struggles begin with not knowing much English and even less French, combined with cultural differences and circumstances that take Charging Elk further and further away from his dream of returning home to his Lakota family. The first half of the book moved somewha...more
Although well-written, this book just moved too slowly for me to really enjoy. So, staying true to my "so many books, so little time" mantra, I skipped to the last chapter and shut the cover on this one.
Imagine a North American Indian chosen because he had not been assimilated into the reservations in the 19th Century. Imagine him joining Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show as a rider - and then getting left behind in France. Such is the nature of this wonderful story very loosely based on a true event. Welch enters the mind of our hers (and indeed he is one - and much more than a cliché'noble savage'). His gradual awareness of the society of which he becomes part is beautifully caught in unfolding t...more
This book opened my world of what it might be like for a Native American living in France during the time of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. The shift in settings of Charging Elk's experience in Marsielle to the world of Greasy Grass, Custer and Crazy Horse provide us with lessons in history and give us opportunities to learn about clashing cultures, and the strength of one man to be true to himself. James Welch has since passed away, and the literary world lost an American master, one who happen...more
Charging Elk leaves the Dakotas to travel on an adventure with Buffalo Bill's show. In France he falls ill, becomes separated from the show and is left behind. A stranger in a new land, he has a myriad of experiences, many painfully negative, as he slowly becomes (somewhat) acculturated. While you could see this as a depressing book given what he has to endure, I think it is, instead, an uplifting story of how someone who is trying to simply do the next right thing finds contentment and peace in...more
Tim Weed
The Heartsong of Charging Elk is a good novel, fast-paced and ultimately melancholy, though not as bleak as one might expect given the topic. It interests me because I believe Welch does a fine job handling something that I’ve struggled with in my own work: how to tell a dark or sad story without succumbing completely to horror and despair.

Read the rest of my review here:
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Not a great read but a very interesting story about a native American born in the time when he witnessed his people getting sick and surrender to the reservations. He joins the Buffalo Bill show that travels to Europe and gets injured in France. They leave him behind and he is stuck in the counting without knowing the language (French or English)

Nice history pieces and some insight into both the French and Lakota cultures.
I would actually give this book a 3 1/2 if you could give half stars. It gets off to a very slow start, but about half way through the book it takes off and becomes much more interesting. Based somewhat on truth, though I'm not sure how much, this piece of historical fiction is a sad look at what becomes of one of the late-day Lakota Indians who gets left behind in France after traveling with a Wild West show.
I started reading this book on recommendation from my writing group who said it would help with the development of one of my characters. I enjoyed it up until half-way, when the main character decides to enter a whore house. Sorry, but that's something I just don't want to read about. I stopped reading, which makes me a little sad, because I really did want to find out if Charging Elk ever gets back home!
I was intrigued by the description of the book when I came across it. I haven't read any other books by James Welch. It is a bittersweet story about Charging Elk, who is left behind alone in France by the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show (accidentally). The story explores how his life unfolds from not being able to speak the language and sticking out because he is vastly different from those around him to
So very sad...there were a few spots I thought the writing was not as strong as the rest, but overall, the character of Charging Elk was so engaging that Welch pulled me through. Not as good as Fools Crow, in my mind, but well worth the time spent to catch a glimpse of what it might have been like to be an American Indian lost in a strange land without a language in common with anyone.
Ashley Sherburne
I absolutely loved this book. It includes the same descriptive, melancholy, and almost whimsical story telling style of "Fools Crow" and "Winter in the Blood" , but takes place in turn of the 20th Century France and weaves together two very different worlds so beautifully. I read it several years ago and find myself wanting to pick it up again!
Jul 27, 2007 Lee rated it 3 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: historical fiction fans
This novel is based on a real person -- there really was a Native American person working with the Wild West Show, became ill with influenza (during the epidemic) in France, was left behind (because he was expected to die), and lived the rest of his life in France. He did not speak a word of French. The book tells his story as imagined by Welch.
This is an unutterably sad book that I recommend only for readers with strength to learn from what it has to say about identity loss, abandonment, and loneliness.
Stephen Packard
Similarities with "Little Big Man". Using the mythological structure of "a stranger in a strange land" transports an Oglala Sioux who fought at the battle of The Little Big Horn to France and Marseille. Totally engrossing and compelling. I wonder if anybody has purchased the movie rights - I would definitely like to see this as a movie!
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