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Elsie's Business

Elsie's Business

4.3 3
by Frances Washburn

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Beaten, raped, and left for dead at the side of a road on the Standing Rock Reservation, young Elsie Roberts disappears into her self to revisit the haunts of her childhood and, perhaps, the depths of her experience to uncover the deepest mystery of all. In Elsie’s Business, Elsie’s search through her own memories ultimately intersects with the


Beaten, raped, and left for dead at the side of a road on the Standing Rock Reservation, young Elsie Roberts disappears into her self to revisit the haunts of her childhood and, perhaps, the depths of her experience to uncover the deepest mystery of all. In Elsie’s Business, Elsie’s search through her own memories ultimately intersects with the search of a stranger who is seeking Elsie’s story.

A picture emerges of a poor child, half black and half Native, whose mother has barely eked out a living for the two of them by tanning deerskins and cleaning houses. Rebuilding her life in a different town as a housekeeper, tanner, and beader of moccasins and bags, much like her mother, the taciturn Elsie finds modest comfort and connections among the white people who employ and befriend her. But her peace is fleeting, for someone from her past, or possibly her present, would like to see her silenced completely. A mystery of mesmerizing suspense and sadness, Elsie’s Business weaves the story of a ravaged woman into the traditional tales of her people to create a vivid sense of communities bound by storytelling and understanding and sundered by ignorance and silence.

Editorial Reviews


"Washburn weaves together a murder tale, a story of small-town prejudice, and a bit of Native American mysticism in a haunting debut."

— Deborah Donovan, Booklist

Gerald Vizenor

"An outstanding, original, engaging narrative of a native community and survivance."

—Gerald Vizenor, author of Manifest Manners: Narratives on Postindian Survivance

Booklist - Deborah Donovan
"Washburn weaves together a murder tale, a story of small-town prejudice, and a bit of Native American mysticism in a haunting debut."—Booklist
Kirkus Reviews
A stranger visits a small town to uncover the truth about the short, tragic life of a Native American woman in 1960s South Dakota. Born into poverty to a Dakota mother and a black father she never met, Elsie Roberts never fit in with the Native American or white communities. Cleaning houses and looking after her sick mother, Elsie's life takes a terrible turn one winter day when she is brutally raped and left for dead by four joyriding white teenagers. She beats the odds and regains consciousness to discover not only that her mother has died-but that the boys who hurt her were killed in a car wreck the very night of her attack. After she recovers, a local church intervenes and gets the vulnerable-seeming young woman a new job in a nearby town where she keeps to herself but seems to find some happiness doing beadwork and receiving visitors. Striking yet childlike, Elsie also has a strange effect on some of the local men, including the young Catholic priest she works for, and the rancher husband of a well-meaning white woman who befriends her. After Elsie is murdered while walking home one night, the gossiping about her only intensifies when the top two suspects in her slaying are found dead. Could it be that Elsie was really the seductive embodiment of the "Deer Woman," an avenging force in native legend? Or just a lost soul who never had a chance? And what about the mummified baby found in her cabin? Told via flashbacks to an unnamed narrator somehow connected to Elsie, this frequently sad story is most interesting when showing the intersection of modern and Native life, such as Elsie's attempts to tan her own deer hides using ancient methods. The blend of murder mystery and NativeAmerican legend can be intriguing, but Elsie, who never speaks for herself, remains an enigma, making it hard to see her as anything other than a victim.

Product Details

UNP - Bison Books
Publication date:
Native Storiers: A Series of American Narratives
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.60(d)

Read an Excerpt

Elsie's Business

By Frances Washburn

University of Nebraska Press

Copyright © 2006

University of Nebraska Press

All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8032-9865-X

Chapter One

January 16, 1970


If you want to know more about Elsie's story than just the official
reports you have to ask one of the grandfathers, because they know
all the old stories as well as the new ones, the latest gossip, and sometimes
it's all the same stories happening over and over. Someone just
changes things up a little bit, a name here, a place there. Elsie's story
could go any which of a way. Ask Oscar DuCharme. He can tell you
all the stories. No one else seems inclined to tell you much of anything.

Oscar could live in the newest tribal housing project; he qualifies,
but he doesn't want to. Instead he lives in the little white frame
house just off Main Street, where there aren't any sidewalks, and the
view is the back of The Steak House that faces onto Main Street. He
and his wife, Ruby, dead now for years, bought the little house years
ago, not on the time payment plan, but with one big chunk of money
they'd saved up from the lease payments on their land allotments.

Bigger towns touch the gossip one day, one week, maybe one
month, and then they reach out to some newer story, but in Jackson,
a story as big as Elsie's happens rarely, so it gets handed around for
weeks and months. It's been a little overeleven months now since
Elsie died, and people have fondled the story so long that they've
worn the bumps off it, smoothed it with loving words, polished it
with lies, half truths, and omissions. Now it just sits there on the
shelf with all the other stories, something that you look at now and
then and say, "Oh, yes, that one. Really interesting. I can't remember
all the details, but if you really want to see it like it happened, go ask
one of the grandfathers."

You walk down the slight hill from Main Street, turn right on
First Street, and halfway up the block on the left, there's Oscar's
house, smoke rising from the chimney telling you that he's home
and got his wood stove going. The early January snow, six inches
deep, hides the packed earth of his front yard. In front of the skeletal
Chinese elm that he planted twenty years ago, a snowdrift finger
angles across the yard, pointing its icy tip towards the southwest like
a contrary compass. You notice that the bottom right side of the
front door has the white paint scratched away in fresh parallel arcs.
Oscar must have another dog, you think, and when you knock, a yapping
from inside tells you that he has indeed found a replacement for
Tiger, his mutt that they told you had died last summer when you
asked if he had a mean dog.

The door opens and Oscar stands there, his dark eyes, deep set in
heavy wrinkles, blinking a little at the glare of sunshine off the snow.
He's dressed in old khaki pants and brown cloth bedroom slippers, a
navy blue sweater with a ladder run falling from a half-torn-off little
alligator patch on the left side of his chest. The sweater is tight over
his big belly. The tail of a faded green plaid shirt hangs in a drape
below his sweater front. Cowering behind his leg, a brown ratty dog
yaps a high-pitched sound.

"Hau," he says, and then he makes a sharp downward motion with
his right hand and the dog hushes. "Come in."

"Hello," you say, and you start to explain who you are, but he
stops you before you get more out than your name.

"Know who you are," he says. "Word gets around." He doesn't
ask what you want from him.

The room smells of brewed coffee, beans and ham cooking in the
kitchen, damp dog and cigarette smoke.

"It's a good day," he says. He snaps brown, bent fingers, points
behind the sofa and the dog disappears behind it. "But it's cold. I
don't like winter so much anymore. You know, I used to like ice fishing,
but not anymore. How about you?"

"No. I like summer fishing."

He hrrumps in agreement. "I have coffee just made. I'll get us

You sense that it isn't time yet for you to ask about Elsie's story.
Perhaps there are matters of politeness to attend first.

He starts for the kitchen door, taking slow, shuffling steps. The
dog darts out from behind the other end of the sofa, dashes ahead of
him, toenails clicking on the worn linoleum floor.

The living room is small; walls once painted white are yellowed by
the smoke from the old man's cigarettes, festooned here and there
with greasy, gray cobwebs that he probably never notices. A battered
lumpy sofa in mud brown tweed sits against one wall, an orange velour
rocker next to it and in between, a small table with a lamp, an
overflowing ashtray and a mostly eaten bologna sandwich. Opposite
the sofa, a small television with a coat hanger for an antenna sits on
top of a larger console television. Both are switched on to an afternoon
game show with the picture in black and white visible on the
smaller one, and the sound coming out of the console set. Waist-high
stacks of books stand like three wise men beside the television.
Here and there on the walls, Oscar has thumbtacked up color pictures
torn from magazines - Niagara Falls, a mountain view that
could be anywhere in the world, a group of kangaroos shown against
a red barren landscape.

He hollers from the kitchen.

"Sit down. Be comfortable. I don't have that powder cream stuff
for the coffee. I got that can milk, the kind with the flowers on the

"That's fine," you say. "Just a dollop. I don't take sugar." You push
aside the newspapers on the end of the sofa and sit.

He returns in a moment bearing two thick tan mugs of coffee.
The dog follows, gives one short territory-defining yap at you before
it disappears again behind the sofa. Oscar lowers himself into the
orange velour chair, and the springs in the seat relax and cup his
weight so that he looks like he is wrapped in a moth-eaten trade

You sit and sip in silence for a few minutes, and then he talks
about the weather a little more. Finally, it is time.

"Grandfather, I heard that Elsie Roberts was your niece," you say.

He puts down his coffee cup on the table, fishes in his sweater
pocket for a moment and brings out a pack of no-filter cigarettes.
Instead of having only that one end of the pack torn off, the whole
top is ripped open, right across the seal. He takes out a cigarette,
leans back and struggles with his hand in his pocket until he has extracted
an old scratched silver Zippo lighter. He lights the cigarette,
draws deeply and exhales, his eyes squinted.

"Elsie was everybody's niece," he says. Then he explains. "You
know, it's the old kinship way of thinking about people. We are all
related in that way, so Elsie was my niece in that Indian way, but not
white man way. Indian way that makes her your cousin, everybody's
relative - cousin, niece. Indian way, makes me your grandfather,
and everybody's grandfather. How do you feel about that?" He isn't
challenging you; he's smiling. For one time in your life, you feel included.
He goes on.

"See, calling everybody cousin or niece or whatever makes us feel
close, family, but it also makes it damned hard to find a mate if you
have to think of everyone you meet as a cousin or a niece or some
other family member. Some rules must not be broken. Elsie came to
be as the result of broken rules, and then she broke some herself, and
that's the heartbreak of it all."

You don't have anything to say to that since you are part of the
rule breaking yourself, so you just sip your coffee and wait.

Then he begins the story, and you sit still and listen.

"Elsie's mother was from here, but Elsie wasn't born here. She
was born at Marty Mission School, where her mother went after her
husband died. Elsie's mother was a one only. You know that expression,
'one only'?"

You don't, but he explains.

"It means a woman who marries only once, no matter what happens
after that. It's old-fashioned as hell, and women these days
don't pay it any mind, but back in the old days, a one only woman
could be one of those demons the Christians talk about, and she
would still be respected by her own people, revered even, no matter
what else she did, just because of her devotion to a dead man."

Burning tobacco smoke curls around his head, defines the air currents
in the room, floats towards you carrying the words and the

"Elsie's mother - her name was Mary - anyways, she didn't have
family anymore, just her husband's people down here, and six to
seven months after he died, she left. Went back to Marty Mission,
where she'd been raised up and went to school come from. So Mary
goes up there, and after Elsie is born, she moves off to Mobridge and
she takes jobs cleaning houses for people, just like she used to do
here. Mary's kind of odd, kind of stays to herself, but she does good
work, so people don't care. They don't have much to do with her,
but they know she's a one only, so, like I say, she gets a lot of respect.
Maybe not friendship, though, you know? That's a different thing.
So anyway, Elsie gets raised up there in Mobridge. They're kind of
outcasts from everybody, just the two of them all alone. But from
what people say, they were making a way for themselves, you know,
a living. They say."

His eyes take on a far away look and you know he's right there, up
at Standing Rock, where the official story says it happened, but
doesn't make you feel like it's real. It's like Oscar is right there in
Elsie's pocket on the night it happened. Like he's right there watching,
but he can't stop any of it. He just had to be there. Somebody
had to tell the story.

Oscar folds his hands over his big belly and he starts a different
story, a story that you think doesn't have anything to do with Elsie.

So one day, Inktomi, the Spider was going along
And he was thinking heavy.
All the people were busy going about their business and
Inktomi had no business to go about.
Whenever he tried to work with the people, they told him
To go away and mind his own business.
But he didn't have any business to mind.
So, Inktomi, the Spider was just going along
And he walked by the lodge of the first man and first woman,
Wazi and Wakanka.
Inktomi noticed that they were just sitting there,
not doing anything.

They sighed real big from time to time, and they didn't look happy.
So Inktomi stops.
"What's wrong?" he asks.
"Oh, it's nothing that you can fix," Wazi says.

"How do you know that?" Inktomi replies. "Ask me."
"Go mind your own business," says Wakanka.
"Let me help! I can make your business be my business," Inktomi says.
Wazi and Wakanka just sigh again and look unhappy.
"As it happens, my business is all caught up. Let me help!"
Now Inktomi is begging.
So Wazi and Wakanka look at each other and then Wazi says:
"Our beautiful daughter, Ite, is married to the Wind God, Tate.
And now that she is gone from our lodge, we have no one to boss around.
Tate has honored our daughter, but she is still only human, and so are we.
We want to be gods."
Inktomi considered.
"If Ite could be made a god, would she then make you gods?"
Wazi and Wakanka exchanged glances.
"Yes, but how could that be made to happen?"
Inktomi rubbed his hands together. Here was some business!
So, people didn't want him around, huh? So the other people wouldn't let
him help with their business, huh?
He could make them look foolish, and they might think twice before they
told him to mind his own business.
"Give me your consent and I will make it happen."
Wazi and Wakanka smiled and agreed.
Inktomi went on then, and went to Ite, and while
she was sleeping,
He whispered in her ear.
He whispered, "Anpetu Wi, the Sun, has much power.
He has more power than your husband, Tate.
And you are beautiful. If you smile at him

Just so
If you dip your chin and look up at him through your eyelashes
Just so
And turn away slowly, looking back
Enough times, he will not be able to resist."
So, on awakening, Ite followed Inktomi's suggestions until all the gods
were talking, but nobody was talking about it to Anpetu Wi's wife,
Hanhepi Wi.
"I am secure now," Ite said to herself. "I can be the god wife of Anpetu Wi,
when I want to."
Just then, Anpetu Wi decided to give a feast.
At the feast, Ite looks around, bold.
Boldly, she walks over and sits down in the place reserved for Anpetu Wi's
Hanhepi Wi enters just then, and she sees the situation and she demands
She demands that something be done.
Now Anpetu Wi looks around at the little smiles on the gods' faces.
He looks at Hanhepi Wi's angry face and
He looks at Ite, lowering her chin and smiling up at him through her
He does not see Inktomi, peeking from the corner.
Anpetu Wi looks and his eyes are open.
Anpetu Wi points his finger and half of Ite's face turns ugly.
He points again and Ite is banished to the earth and ever afterwards,
The people will call her

The Double Faced Woman.

Oscar sits still for a minute. Then he heaves himself up out of the
chair and he says, "Let me get you some more coffee."


Excerpted from Elsie's Business
by Frances Washburn
Copyright © 2006 by University of Nebraska Press .
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Frances Washburn is an assistant professor of American Indian studies and English at the University of Arizona.

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