They say that truth is stranger than fiction, and at first glance, the new novel by Montana writer James Welch seems to bear this out. "Inspired by actual historical fact," as the dust jacket reads, The Heartsong of Charging Elk chronicles the journey of a young boy who witnessed the massacre of Custer's Seventh Cavalry by his people at Little Big Horn and later lives as a Native American in Paris. But Welch is quick to point out that as exhaustively researched and historical as the book feels, Charging Elk is a figure of fiction.
"It's kind of misleading. It makes it sound like Charging Elk was an actual historical figure and these things actually happened to him," says Welch of his publisher's claims on the dust jacket. "But he's actually a composite of several Indian performers that went to Europe with Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, as well as some of the stories I already knew about, like Black Elk being stranded in Europe for several years and one Indian who died in Marseilles."
In The Heartsong of Charging Elk, the young protagonist not only witnesses the violence of Little Big Horn, but also the quick retaliation of the United States government in ordering the Oglala Sioux to the Pine Ridge Reservation. Charging Elk runs away to join a loose band of similar renegades, eventually gaining the attention of Buffalo Bill for his reckless skill on horseback. As part of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, Charging Elk and his friends are the toast of Europe.
"In the Indian acts, they did things like chase the Deadwood Stage and chase the Pony Express rider. Then they killed Custer every night, of course," explains Welch, adding that the Indians also chased small herds of real buffalo, which is the last thing Charging Elk remembers before winding up, alone, in a hospital in Marseilles. Discovering that the show has gone ahead without him, Charging Elk is in an unusually dire situation.
"He's really up a creek," Welch admits with a gentle laugh. "He can't speak French or English and has no idea about even the American culture, much less the French culture. He's kind of devastated and dazed and doesn't know what to do."
How Charging Elk escapes from the Marseilles hospital and gets caught up in a complicated web of love and murder is at the heart of the rest of this ambitious, gripping novel. Throughout is a bittersweet thread of being much too far from home, but forging a life anyway. And while the novel is full of plot twists and turns, the story that initiated the idea for the book is a similarly surprising coincidence.
"I think that it was in '94 that I was in France promoting Fools Crow, which had just come out over there, and my editor, my wife and I were in Marseilles," says Welch. "While we were there, I was signing books in a very hot, stuffy bookstore, and this guy kept hanging around the fringes of this signing area. He was wearing kind of Western clothes but they were just slightly off. His belt buckle had a Fleur de Lis on it, and his boots had too many buckles on them.
"Afterwards several of us went to an outdoors cafe for a cold drink, and he came along. He was sitting on the other side of my editor and talking, and then my editor turned to me and said, 'This guy says that his grandmother came over with Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show in 1905 and she was an Oglala woman,' " Welch continues. " 'She met a Frenchman, fell in love and married him, and this guy is the grandson of that union. But I think this guy is a wannabe,' so we had a good laugh over that."
The French/Indian "wannabe," Pierre Falaise, who did turn out to have Native American ancestry, became Welch's Marseille contact and gets effusive thanks in the back of the book.
"He would show us sites and Xerox things out of the old newspapers that were in the archives there," says Welch. "He just facilitated everything so that our trips to Marseilles were very easy and very productive."
While Sherman Alexie writes the most glowing blurb on the dust jacket, the most intriguing blurb is by Annie Dillard. "Fools Crow is one of the greatest, most absorbing novels of mainstream American literature," writes Dillard about his earlier work. "It's absurd to stick it on a 'Native American' reservation."
And how does Welch feel about Dillard's shrewd assessment of such literary marginalization?
"Indians are still stuck away in the 'Indian literature' section, but I've been around long enough so that my novels are mostly in the general fiction section now," says Welch. "Still, most people, most reviewers, and even some critics have a tendency to say this is Indian literature, this is not mainstream literature. When they talk about it that way, I think that really does demean the books, and I think it demeans the people too because that implies that Indians don't have universal experiences, that Indians aren't human beings like everybody else. So I just wish they'd quit that. I think it's finally starting to happen to a certain extent, but it's not happening fast enough for everybody."
If the success of The Heartsong of Charging Elk is any indication, books by Welch, Alexie and others are embraced by readers who simply crave something well-crafted, evocative and compelling. With numerous positive reviews in all the right publications, Welch jokes, "I've had huge crowds at some of my readings, and I'm even selling some books."
Which bodes well toward the continuation of Charging Elk's adventures in a future novel. "I am working toward a sequel," says Welch. "I want to bring Charging Elk up through the two World Wars and probably up to his death. The way I've got it figured, he probably dies in the '50s. I just really want to do some work with his descendents, but more than anything, to bring his remarkable life to an end."
James Welch reads from The Heartsong of Charging Elk on Thursday, Sept. 7, at 7:30 pm at Auntie's Bookstore, 402 W. Main. Call: 838-0206.