Reservation of the soul
John Trudell, former spokesman for the American Indian Movement, once said that modern society had forced all people onto a “reservation of the soul” and had taken control of their individual destinies.
That idea, the reservation of the soul, wove into my perceptions of The Heartsong of Charging Elk by James Welch. The power of government and society over the individual is certainly a theme that pops up regularly in the Native American author’s sixth book.
It would be difficult to read Heartsong as anything but a massive political metaphor. I confess I occasionally lost focus on the words on the page because I spent so much time reading between the lines.
That’s not to say the story isn’t readable. Except for some hard-to-swallow moments and a few stereotypical characters, the novel flows like a Black Hills stream. Welch’s mastery of the language and story-telling techniques almost overcame all of my complaints. I certainly had no trouble seeing and smelling late-19th century France or identifying with the lead character.
The Heartsong of Charging Elk is the story of an Oglala Sioux who joins Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show for an 1889 tour of Europe. He comes down with influenza and breaks some ribs in Marseille, France, and is hospitalized. When Charging Elk regains consciousness, he can’t speak French, and the show has gone on. He flees the hospital and is picked up for vagrancy, thus falling into the clutches of French bureaucracy. He eventually is released to a kind French family.
This is a beautiful premise, baroque with potential. The plot fuels the allegory that suggests that Native Americans were dragged into a world that was built on rules they couldn’t grasp. Welch set himself a wonderful stranger-in-a-strange-land starting block, but then he stumbles and has Charging Elk fall in love with a hooker.
I suppose that, like Charging Elk, Native-American people were sometimes seduced by misleading appearances. That could mean the prostitute worked better for the metaphor than the on-page story, where it just seemed like an excuse to get a little sex in the book.
But if the prostitute’s place in this book can be rationalized, it is more difficult to explain the spot occupied by Armand Breteuil, a homosexual restaurateur. Breteuil pays the prostitute, Marie Colete, to drug Charging Elk, so that Breteuil can rape him while he’s unconscious. Colete, who is at least half in love with Charging Elk, goes through with the plan after being threatened. Charging Elk wakes up while Breteuil’s performing oral sex on him, and he kills him with a handy switchblade.
Charging Elk is brought to trial, found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. His inability to understand French society and to properly defend himself is his downfall.
After farming for 10 years at the prison, Charging Elk is, incredibly, pardoned by the French government. He goes from the prison to a small farm where he falls in love and marries.
In the book’s final chapter, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show returns to France in 1905. Charging Elk turns down an opportunity to return home, saying he belongs in France with his wife and soon-to-arrive child. This is a weird little sort-of-happily-ever-after ending, which hurts the integrity of both the political allegory and the story.
To sum it all up, Trudell was only half right. In some ways, we’re all diminished by what we’re forced to do to survive. We’re also ennobled. The book’s ink-on-page story solidified that thought for me. On an allegorical level, by comparing what the French government did to Charging Elk to what the U.S. government did to this continent’s native people, Welch successfully raised questions that our society will eventually have to answer.