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Get out your handkerchiefs for books that will touch you
By Breck Longstreth
I'm a weeper. I cry at movies and while watching PBS. I even cry at the occasional television commercial, much to my family's amazement and amusement. When that child gets on the bus for kindergarten and the mother is left to wave goodbye, I'm done for.
When it comes to books, I have a long history of crying. As a child, I was inconsolable when I read Little Women. As a teenager, Gone With the Wind, How Green Was My Valley and Anna Karenina moved me to tears. And I'm nothing if not eclectic in my sorrow: as an adult, I cried reading Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove, and Wallace Stegner's The Spectator Bird.
When my children were little, I'd choke up while reading out loud to them. Farley Mowat's Owls in the Family got me every time. And Laura Ingalls Wilder and her Little House on the Prairie books? Each time Pa moved that family west again, I cried for Ma. She was a good sport, but it was almost more than I could bear. My kids, puzzled, would pat me, tell me it was OK and wait for me to regain my composure.
In the last year, I've cried only twice when reading a book. I don't know if this speaks to a lack of pathos in current literature or to some hardening of my heart. I hope it's not the latter.
The first book that moved me to tears, some months ago, was David McCullough's biography, John Adams. This book got a lot of press when it was published in 2001, and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize. I won't review it here, but if it's one you've been putting off because of its 700 pages, you should take the time to read it. I don't think McCullough set out to make me cry. The book, after all, is a straightforward, chronological biography of one of our country's founders. But McCullough was able to tell Adams' story in such a way that I felt a tremendous loss at the death of this patriot. Perhaps my sadness was abetted by the context in which I was reading the book, when our country was again at war and the word ``patriot'' had been redefined -- and not in a good way -- by John Ashcroft and his ilk.
Reading The Heartsong of Charging Elk by James Welch instigated my most recent crying jag. The title is a giveaway, isn't it? How can a word like ``heartsong'' not lead to heartbreak?
Charging Elk is a young Oglala Sioux, who, faced with the prospect of either starving or moving onto a reservation with the rest of his Lakota people, decides instead to join Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show and see the world. When he gets sick with the flu in France, he's admitted to the hospital and is abandoned there when the show moves on without him. Able to speak only a few words of French and English and knowing no written language, he is left in a terrible limbo. As an Indian, he is not a U.S. citizen and the U.S. embassy won't help him when the French government makes a bureaucratic blunder that results in him being declared dead.
The book follows 15 years of Charging Elk's life as a stranger in a strange land. Like all good novels, the book is filled with conflict. In these pages, you'll find love, loyalty, murder and the power of memory. The story is essentially about Charging Elk's ability to adapt and survive in his new environment, while remaining true in his heart to his Lakota origins. Though there are some well-meaning whites who cross his path, there are more who are racist and heartless. Charging Elk's tale can be seen as a metaphor for the fate of Native Americans as a whole, forced to assimilate and adapt to a culture not their own. In making a life for himself in France, Charging Elk triumphs, but the triumph is so fraught with poignancy that it's almost unbearable to read.
Which explains why my husband found me sobbing into my pillow when I finished the book at 5:30 a.m. one morning not long ago.
The Heartsong of Charging Elk is the final of five novels written by Welch (1940-2003), who as a young man was mentored by a professor at the University of Montana, poet Richard Hugo. He is also the author of a book of poems, Riding the Earthboy 40, and one non-fiction book, Killing Custer. Though less well known than Native American writers like Louise Erdrich or Sherman Alexie, Welch is widely regarded as one of the country's best and most influential writers of the American Indian experience.
In an introduction to a book catalog of Native American literature in 1997, Welch wrote that he was raised on two reservations in northern Montana that are often described as isolated and hopeless.
``But to a kid growing up, they weren't bad at all. You had friends, your parents loved you, you loved your culture, you rode horses, you put up hay, you fished and hunted. It was only later, after you had been told that your culture was dying and that you had grown up in a depressed, `bleak' place, that you came to believe that life on a reservation was not what you thought it was.'' Welch's father was a Blackfoot Indian and his mother a Gros Ventre.
By starting at the end of Welch's oeuvre, I'm now inspired to go back and read his earlier work. One reviewer described his first books as ``relentlessly contemporary and uniformly pessimistic,'' but people seem consistently enthusiastic about his third novel, Fool's Crow, which won the American Book Award and is considered by most to be Welch's masterpiece. Like The Heartsong of Charging Elk, it takes place at the end of the 19th century. It is the story of the last days of the Blackfeet and their decimation by smallpox and U.S. soldiers.
If that's not a recipe for weeping, I don't know what is.
Breck Longstreth can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org