The Power of Memory: Backstory, Flashback, and the Lost World in James Welch's The Heartsong of Charging Elk

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.
The novel is told from the perspective of a young Lakota Sioux in the 1880’s, who travels to Europe with Buffalo Bill’s traveling Wild West show, falls ill in Marseilles, and is stranded there.  For most of the novel Charging Elk longs to return home to the Black Hills of North Dakota.  But he ends up falling in love, getting in progressively more serious trouble, spending time in prison, and eventually acculturating himself to turn-of-the-century French life.  A major unspoken sub-theme is the sunset of traditional Native America and its forced adaptation to modern realities.
The novel’s engaging prologue shows Charging Elk as a young boy, less than a year after Custer’s defeat at the Battle of Little Bighorn, participating in the surrender of Crazy Horse at a U.S. Army fort.  It provides crucial background on the protagonist and establishes the novel’s emotional anchor: the lost world from which Charging Elk has been expelled and to which he spends most of the novel trying in one way or another to return.
The novel proper begins nearly a decade later, after Charging Elk becomes separated from the Wild West show in Marseilles.  Welch allows only ten pages to lapse before he reminds us of the lost world set forth in the prologue.  In the following passage the protagonist has recently gained consciousness in a Marseilles hospital after a long bout with illness:
He thought of sunrise in another place.  A place of long views, or pale dust and short grass, of few people and no buildings.  He had seen that sunrise over the rolling simple plains, he had been a part of it and it had been a part of him. . . He remembered the villages, the encampments, one place, then another.  Women picking berries, men coming back with meat, the dogs and horses, the sudden laughter or tears of children, the quiet ease of lying in a sunny lodge with the skins rolled up to catch a breeze.  He had been a child then too and he had spent his days riding his horse, playing games, eating the sarvisberry soup that his mother made.
Note the elegiac flavor of the prose: the sun-dappled imagery doled out in successive comma-separated clauses, creating the effect of gently breaking waves of memory.   Such emotionally rich description is credible even this early in the novel, because it emanates from a clearly understandable place within the protagonist.  Whether or not we share Charging Elk’s yearning for the lost innocence of the Plains Indian lifestyle – and it’s probably fair to assume that the majority of Welch’s readers do share it – we can certainly understand where the yearning comes from.   Moreover, if we accept the premise that we all carry our own lost worlds around with us throughout our lives, the emotion behind the description is not only credible, but universally resonant.
Charging Elk wanders the streets of Marseilles, lost, cold and hungry.  His memories of Dakota are frequently juxtaposed with allusions to the bleakness of his current state, producing a striking contrast between light and dark, happiness and the frightening misery of dislocation:
Charging Elk dreamed of buffalo hump, of belly fat and boss ribs, of brains and marrow bones.  But just as he was about to dig in, just as his mother passed him a bowl of sarvisberry soup, he would awaken to find himself on a stoop in an alley, or under some bushes in a park full of stark trees.  Then he would look up at the darkness and recognize many star people, but they would be in the wrong place in the sky. 
Charging Elk remembers his lost world with enough regularity that it’s a continual presence throughout the novel: periodically in the foreground but always in the background.  The memories are most eloquent in moments that threaten to tilt into total blackness, as when he finds himself serving a life sentence in La Tombe, an isolated high security prison:
But quite often, at the very moment Charging Elk’s despair was at its apex, the snow would fall.  And he would lift his head and feel the downy flakes settle on his face and melt and he would be transported, as if by magic . . . back to the Stronghold and the winters he had spent with Kills Plenty.  The memories that rushed around in his mind – High Runner snorting out a greeting just outside the lodge in the morning, Kills Plenty pretending to be asleep so that Charging Elk would have to build the fire, hunting all day only to return with a long-legged rabbit – took him a long way from La Tombe and sustained him for a few days.  But then the thought of dying would return and he would lie on his cot wrapped in his blanket and wonder when.
Once again we see the contrast between the light of memory and the darkness of present reality.  One makes the other possible.  Darkness is a sine qua non of fiction, because if everything is peaches and cream where’s the conflict?  But Charging Elk’s lost world provides a ray of light, a needed contrast, a reason for hope in the face of overwhelming evidence for despair.
On one level the novel is the story of the destruction of a way of life, the tail end of more than three centuries of genocide on the North American continent.  It’s a sad and shameful legacy, there’s no way around it.  On another level the novel tells the story of a stranger in a strange land, who is exploited, commits murder, spends more than a decade in jail, and never sees his home or his people again.  Sounds like pretty bleak material for a novel, doesn’t it?  But it’s not, really, in part because Charging Elk’s memories infuse the novel with light, expressing the joy of the way things used to be; the way they still are in his imagination.
And amazingly, Welch achieves that rarest of fictional birds, the credible happy ending.  Charging Elk is released from prison, gets married to a lovely young Frenchwoman and, in the end, adapts to French life.  In doing so he forsakes the dreams of his youth, his golden lost world, but after all he’s been through it seems like a necessary sacrifice.  It’s a bittersweet resolution, tinged with tragedy as well as hope. As such, it has the clear ring of truth.
This post originally appeared at Grub Street Daily.