Exploring Ambiguity in Elsie’s Business

by Joshua Beran

Considering all that happens to the lead character, there is very little "action" in Elsie’s Business.

In place of action, Washburn gives us relationships, internal dialogue, and
atmosphere.  Though the book streches over several years, most of it is set inElsies_business_1

the ruthless South Dakota winter.  Prairie winters are deadly, unchanging, and
unwelcoming.  Long winters can close minds, leaving those that live through them locked up with the same people they have always known.  There is stasis; nothing moves, nobody moves.  Even the dead stay above ground, waiting for the land to thaw. 

The book can also be seen as a parable.  We see the helplessness of Elsie, a
traumatized young native woman.  We also see the struggles of other natives and the white outcasts of her community.  We also see how powerful people —  sheriff’s, religious leaders, and land barons — are also rendered helpless by circumstance, social custom, their politically loaded interactions with each other, and the all-consuming winter. Elsie’s Business shows us the futility of forming social pyramids, especially in a land that has so little to give to begin with.


I’m a 25 year-old senior English major at University of Nebraska-Lincoln.  I’m originally from North Platte, NE, and I’ve always been fascinated by the unspoken in rural Great Plains culture.

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