Award-winning Native American novelist Welch (Fools Crow, 1986, etc.) tells a powerful story of a young Lakota who's stranded in France—and who will spend an ordeal of dark years in that strange land before regaining a life and his dignity.
Charging Elk was only a boy when his Sioux band surrendered to US soldiers and became reservation Indians in 1877. Twelve years later, he seizes a chance to tour the world with Buffalo Bill's Wild West show as an alternative to rotting on the rez. Hospitalized with broken ribs and the flu in Marseille, he recovers to find himself abandoned by the traveling show and takes to the streets in confusion. Arrested as a vagabond, Charging Elk comes to the attention of the American consul, who gets him out of jail and into better quarters. But his supposedly brief stay with a kind family of fishmongers turns into years when French authorities refuse to let him go home. Speaking scant French and no English, Charging Elk eventually gets a menial job and moves out on his own. Then his loneliness places him in a compromising situation: a prostitute he's come to love betrays him to a black-hearted homosexual chef. Provoked into killing the man, he goes to trial and becomes a cause célèbre, but he's convicted of murder anyway and sent to prison for life. Incredibly, after 11 years of quiet gardening, he receives a pardon, and in a remarkable series of reversals he makes a family in Marseille and finds a measure of peace . . . until the day when a chance suddenly appears for Charging Elk to return home.
Despite some contrived plot twists, Welch's study of a man forced to adapt to a world utterly unlike his own—and a richly imagined world it is—is well sustained. An amply rewarding read.