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 Native American 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.