One of the most immediately appealing things about Elsie’s Businessis the fact that it’s written like a crime thriller. I remember being up half the night trying to finish it because I couldn’t stand the thought of not knowing who Elsie’s killer was. In this way, the book operated like any other crime novel I had read before. But there is something really important about Frances Washburn’s book that makes it very, very different from other books in this genre. . .
Elsie’s Business begins with an account of the brutal rape and beating of the titular character, who is then left for dead on the edge of the Standing Rock Reservation. After she recovers, she is taken in by Catholic friends in a small town outside of the reservation where she works as a housekeeper. Throughout the book, people thrust various assumptions onto Elsie because of her status as a rape victim (not survivor, in their eyes), a Native American, and a woman. She is also subjected to sexual advances and further attempted assaults by the men in the town, including the ones whose houses she cleans. It is clear throughout the book that there is no safe space for Elsie, neither on the reservation nor off it. Hunting imagery is used throughout the book, underscoring the relentless stream of abuse thrown at Elsie which eventually culminates in her murder.
There’s a very important reason why Washburn wrote this book. More than anything, Elsie’s Business is about the perpetual dehumanization that Native American women are faced with each day. Elsie may be a fictional character, but her story is very much a reality. Reservations see a rate of sexual violence as much as twelve times the national rate. Native women are also ten times more likely to be murdered than non-Natives. The number of women who go missing each year is still undetermined, although “it happens all the time in Indian country” (see links). I’m ashamed to say I didn’t know about this epidemic until I read Elsie’s Business, but that’s why the book is so important: it draws the reader’s attention to a very serious issue that they might not have otherwise known about.Washburn graphically illustrates the most horrific assaults I’ve ever seen in literature because she wants us to know the degree of violence Native American women experience on a regular basis. This book will rightfully haunt me for a very long time and that haunting will always inspire me to educate and inform others about this unspoken but very real issue.