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Welch, James

WELCH, James

Nationality: American. Born: Browning, Montana, in 1940. Education: The University of Montana, Missoula, B.A.; Northern Montana College, Harve. Awards: National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1969; Los Angeles Times prize, for Fools Crow, 1987. Address: Roseacres Farm, Route 6, Missoula, Montana 59801, U.S.A.

Publications

Novels

Winter in the Blood. New York, Harper, 1974.

The Death of Jim Loney. New York, Harper, 1979; London, Gollancz, 1980.

Fools Crow. New York, Viking, 1986.

The Indian Lawyer. New York, Norton, 1990.

The Heartsong of Charging Elk. New York, Doubleday, 2000.

Poetry

Riding the Earthboy 40. Cleveland, World, 1971; revised edition, New York, Harper, 1975.

Other

Killing Custer: The Battle of the Little Bighorn and the Fate of the Plains Indians, with Paul Stekler. New York, Norton, 1994.

Editor, with Ripley S. Hugg and Lois M. Welch, The Real West Marginal Way: A Poet's Autobiography, by Richard Hugo. New York, Norton, 1986.

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Critical Studies:

Four American Indian Literary Masters by Alan R. Velie, Norman, University of Oklahoma Press, 1982; James Welch by Peter Wild, Boise, Idaho, Boise State University 1983; "Beyond Myth: Welch's Winter in the Blood " by Jack Brenner, in Under the Sun: Myth and Realism in Western American Literature edited by Barbara Howard Meldrum, Troy, New York, Whitston, 1985; "Beyond Assimilation: James Welch and the Indian Dilemma" by David M. Craig, in North Dakota Quarterly (Grand Forks), Spring 1985; "Variations on a Theme: Traditions and Temporal Structure in the Novels of James Welch" by Roberta Orlandini, in South Dakota Review (Vermillion), Autumn 1988; Place and Vision: The Function of Landscape in Native American Fiction by Robert M. Nelson, New York, Lang, 1993; Understanding James Welch by Ron McFarland, Columbia, University of South Carolina Press, 2000.

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James Welch has described himself as both an "Indian writer" and "an Indian who writes." This double vision of American Indian experience as unique and yet representative is at the heart of his first four novels, all set in or around reservation Montana and all revolving around protagonists, like Welch himself, of Blackfeet ancestry. Perhaps this is no more than saying that, like any good writer, Welch arrives at the universal through the particular. But the particularthe stresses and strains of Native American culture in uneasy contact with the culture that nearly destroyed ithas not much figured as a theme in serious American fiction. Welch has helped to change that, and he has done so without resort to sentimentality or preachiness.

Winter in the Blood, his first novel, takes up a week or so in the life of its unnamed narrator, a Thirty-two-year-old Blackfeet man suffering from a malaise he can neither understand nor escape from. There is no plot to speak of; the novel simply follows the narrator as he works for a few days as a farm-hand on his step-father's property, quizzes his strong-willed mother about the past, pursues an ex-girlfriend he does not really want to find into the bars and streets of small-town Montana, gets into a minor brawl, and sleeps with a couple of white women. If there is any hope in this grim depiction of aimlessness and anomie it occurs toward the end, when the narrator recognizes a dignified, blind, and ancient Blackfeet man named Yellow Calf as his grandfather and the savior of his family line. But this "opening onto light" that Reynolds Price thought the emotional climax of the novel is closed up in the equally emblematic scene that follows, in which the narrator fails to rescue a cow from a suffocating death in a mudhole. Indeed, a powerful sense of alienation seems to grip Welch as much as his narrator; in the conjunction of the personal and the cultural that might explain such desolation, Welch leans a little too heavily on the latter, and a faintly deterministic air clings to the narrator's stoic despair. Welch's taut prose, dark humor, and sharp, laconic dialogue, so much admired by the book's critics, do not finally save Winter in the Blood from a congealment of its own.

The alienation of the principal character is taken to its logical conclusion in The Death of Jim Loney with his suicide. Actually, Loney's death is a sort of ritualistic murder that he wills upon himself, but that this death is the only form of affirmation available to him suggests the impasse that Welch had worked himself into. Moreover, the novel suffers from some surprisingly clumsy dialogue and unfinished characterization, notably in the two women in Loney's life; his girlfriend Rhea, a white school teacher from Texas, and his sister Kate, a successful education official in Washington, D.C. Loney himself seems like a slightly older, more depressed version of the narrator of Winter in the Blood. A half-breed at home neither in the White nor in the Indian world, he knows that there is "no real love in his life; that somehow, at some time, everything had gone dreadfully wrong." Since the second novel is almost as plotless as the first, there is little for Loney to do but drink and brood and watch passively as his girlfriend and sister try, but fail, to rescue his spirit.

If The Death of Jim Loney was an impasse, Fools Crow was one way out. This long, historical novel concerning a tribe of Blackfeet (Pikuni) in northern Montana in the terrible years after the Civil War, was a major departure for Welch and an unusual instance of a story told entirely from within the Indians' point of view. In Fools Crow Whites (Napikwans) are at most a marginal, though threatening, presence and the interpenetration of myth, religion, and daily life takes place with perfect matter-of-factness. For example the young warrior Fools Crow is guided on a solitary trip to the mountains by Raven, at once an ordinary bird and a trickster spirit. Such scenes effectively dispense with traditional notions of verisimilitude and involve the reader in a different kind of imaginative re-creation.

Welch's protagonist, though a brave warrior and a loving husband and provider, is not immune to the self-doubt and spiritual agony that afflict his two predecessors. But the existential uncertainty experienced by Fools Crow is motivated as much by forces from without as from within. In the course of the novel the Blackfeet are plagued by internal dissension, hunger, small pox, renegade tribespeople, and finally a massacre by white soldiers. Fools Crow's struggle for self knowledge enables him to withstand these shocks to his psyche and to take upon himself as much of the burden of his people as he can. This ethical awareness, new to Welch's fiction, impresses at least as much as his always vivid sense of the Montana landscape and his use of the Blackfeet's animistic speech patterns to describe it. If he does not always succeed in transcribing the Indians' metaphoric language into an unforced, conversational English, the somewhat wooden dialogue is a small price to pay for a novel that dares to forgo irony and narrative detachment in order to represent the harsh and beautiful traditions of the plains Indians at the moment those traditions began to unravel.

In its use of deliberately commercial formulas, The Indian Lawyer was a further departure for Welch. It reads fast, has a suspenseful plot, and even includes a few modest sex scenes. Far from representing a compromised artistry, however, The Indian Lawyer shows how well Welch can use commercial formulas to crest an entertainment of a very serious kind. The Indian lawyer is Sylvester Yellow Calf, who, at thirty-five, has risen above a childhood of deprivation and segregation to become the most promising member of an important law firm in Helena and the leading Democratic candidate for a vacant congressional seat. Suspense is generated by a blackmail attempt against Sylvester engineered by a vengeful prison inmate whose request for parole Sylvester, as a member of the State Board of Pardons, had denied. In fact, the blackmail threat, involving Sylvester's affair with the wife of the inmate, is hard to take seriously; even in conservative Montana, unmarried candidates for political office do not generally lose elections for having a sex life. But Welch arranges the mechanics of the blackmailing skillfully and Sylvester's affair with the lonely, unsophisticated Patti Ann is more than touching; here the more typical polarities of racial power are reversed, but the blue-collar white woman and the worldly, successful Indian share an experience of exclusion that allows them to transcend, if only with each other, constraints of race and class. Perhaps the novel's greatest strength is the characterization of Sylvester himself: a full-blooded Blackfeet both proud of and uncomfortable with his heritage, a liberal and idealist whose decision to run for congress is, as he well knows, exactly as selfish as it is selfless. The novel's ambiguous ending seems far more just than Jim Loney's weirdly affirmative death wish. Sylvester opts out of the race and commits himself to pro bono work for Indian water rights, but he is still competing fiercely against himself. Whether he has reconciled his own spiritual needs with the exigencies of social and moral responsibility is a question Welch does not attempt to answer. Impressive as his first novel is, it is not a question Welch would have thought to ask of the intense and intensely self-absorbed narrator of Winter in the Blood.

During the mid-to late 1990s, Welch moved increasingly into fact-based narrative, producing not only Killing Custer, an account of the Little Big Horn from the winners' viewpoint, but The Heartsong of Charging Elk, a novel based on the experience of an Oglala Sioux man who held a job with Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show.

Stephen Akey

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