Charging Elk wakes up in a hospital in Marseille in 1889 and slowly realizes where he is. A member of Buffalo Bill's touring Wild West Show, Charging Elk has fallen off his horse and broken his ribs, and now the show has moved on, and Charging Elk is left to the mercy of the French governmental bureaucracy. What follows is a fascinating account of the adventures of a true stranger in a strange land.
Author James Welch alternates this main narrative with long flashbacks, as Charging Elk remembers his earlier life. After Red Cloud and the other Oglalas were defeated by the United States Army in 1877, Charging Elk and his friend Strikes Plenty stayed free for another decade, and many of his memories center on that last period of freedom for western American Indians. His earlier life seems tame and peaceful in contrast to the present, where he is arrested, tried, imprisoned, and treated as a savage by the provincial French authorities. By staying true to his Indian spirit, however, Charging Elk survives the hardships and suffering, and eventually finds love and happiness in France.
Welch's narrative about Charging Elk's adventures is based on historical precedent, for both Black Elk and Standing Bear left accounts of the European tour of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. What Welch's novel does is to render Charging Elk's experiences in such detailed and different settings, that readers view Native American life without the mediation of white America, and the result is a sad but powerful story.