Book Review: Black Elk in Paris

This is not the cover of the book. It’s just a photograph of a young Black Elk.

This review was recently posted in shorter and sloppier form on Goodreads.

I give Black Elk in Paris (2006) by Kate Horsley five stars for its amazing historical research, French-doctor voice, and dynamic characters.

A few years ago, I stumbled across a children’s book about Lakota medicine man Black Elk. My response to him was pretty much the same as that of this book’s fictional heroine, Madeline: I was fascinated. (I mean, look at him!) At the age of nine, Black Elk had a troubling vision that encouraged his tribe to choose life rather than bitterness. (They were going to need this later.) At age 15, he was present at the battle of Little Bighorn. Later, he went to England with Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West show.

None of that is in this book.

Apparently, Buffalo Bill accidentally stranded Black Elk and one other Lakota guy in England. They took up with a character called Mexican Joe, who was running a knockoff Wild West show, and toured Europe with him. Black Elk ended up in Paris, where he stayed with a Parisian woman and her family until eventually he was able to get back to his homeland.

This book imagines the effect that Black Elk had on the Parisian woman, her family, and her doctor friend, Philippe Normand. It so happens that the period the Lakota warrior was in Paris coincided with the building of the Eiffel Tower in preparation for the Universal Exhibition (the Paris world’s fair). The tower is mentioned frequently in the book as the characters watch it grow menacingly over their usual haunts. They never call it the Eiffel Tower. It’s usually “the metal tower, looking like a dead tree” or something like that. An ongoing theme in the book is the tension between the apparent triumph of colonialism, including modern science and medicine, with the appeal of Black Elk’s way of life.

My hope had been that we would get to see Paris from Black Elk’s point of view, but alas, he is not the point-of-view character in this story. Perhaps it was wise of the author to create a little distance from Black Elk, not to presume to speak in his voice, which has been well documented. Instead, she writes in the voice of Normand. The 19th-century French tone is spot on, right down to the navel-gazing, romanticism, and cynical asides about human nature. The writing honestly comes off as if it were translated from French, and in fact, each chapter opens with its first sentence in French, then in English.

Normand is on the cutting edge of medical developments. He is friends with many famous historical doctors and goes to their weekly meetings where they argue theory, banter, tease each other, and engage in petty backbiting and politics. Normand honestly wants to relieve human suffering with medicine, but is frustrated by the limitations on what he can accomplish. And over the few years that the book covers, he begins to see some problems with the arrogant and intellectualized attitude taken by French doctors and psychologists of the day. At one point, he complains that he has witnessed doctors not trust the patient to report on his or her own symptoms!

Consequently, though Black Elk does change Normand and Madeline, this book is more about Paris of that time than about the Lakota. My first impression, as a reader who was eager to get to the part with Black Elk, was what awful people these 19th-century Parisians are. (They are snobs! They do recreational drugs! They sleep around! They say the most horrible things to their friends and family!) I definitely did not like Normand at first. I think I was going through culture shock. Normand changes, however, and as he grew and I got used to him, he became as much a hero of this story as Black Elk.

Horsley has, in this book, pulled off the accomplishment that I aim for in my books. She has examined a cross-cultural relationship sensitively, without romanticizing or demonizing either culture. She has also written in an authentic voice from one culture, but told the story in such a way that we can gather some of Black Elk’s perspective as well. The story does not tie things up in a neat little bows, but it is more about connections (however tenuous) that the characters make, rather than about an inability to connect. Also, kudos to her for noticing these two very different worlds touching each other at an actual point in history and making us notice it. To the extent that the book ultimately comes down on the universal human condition rather than on cynicism, it validates both Black Elk’s spiritual values and Normand’s ideals. Not every book set in Paris does this. Nor does every book about colonialism.

Read this if you are interested in the French or, to a lesser extent, the Lakota.

4 thoughts on “Book Review: Black Elk in Paris

  1. James Moore

    I’m enticed. I had three years of French in high school and a year at community college. I also worked in the jc’s language lab. So, the chapters beginning in French just adds extra to a book this review makes me want to read.

    Liked by 1 person

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