Elsie: Next Two Chapters of Serialized Novel Romance of the Village of Solución

The saga continues. The revised manuscript is now 163 pages long. I’m about half finished with the rewrite. The goal is to get this ready to send out in the next couple of months so I can get on with Aristotle’s Lantern. I’d like to have that in some shape to take to Wallowa/Fishtrap next summer.

The Anthropologist as Hero Part III


I don’t think I mentioned that I was “adopted” by one of the Solución families. Yes, I was officially adopted into the village. I was lucky. Not every anthropologist is adopted by her people. Being adopted by the people you have studied is a sign of acceptance. This simple, generous act on the part of my friends certainly would lend credence to any work I eventually published. I would be known as an “expert” for the area if I let the adoption be known.

The adoption by families in Solución was a sign that people did care for me, not just tolerate me. Each year, when I returned to visit or work, large tables were placed in the plaza with iced tea at one end and lemonade at the other. A great feast of chicken and enchiladas and beans and rice was always held in my honor. I always had shawls placed around my shoulders by women as old as I. Of course, they, like me, were mere youngsters when I did my first field work.

On the occasion of what I thought might be my last visit, the year I officially retired from the university and thought I might not be back in the field, there were heaps of food…even more than usual. Official speeches were made about me and gifts were given all around. Crisp new dollar bills were given to the children and piles of antique linens were distributed. Oh, it was a jolly afternoon that stretched long into the night. I still wear my many shawls, you see. I have several with me. They are always a comfort when the sun sets and the winds start up again out here in this beautiful canyon. I used to need them in the house, but Mildred’s propane heater keeps us toasty now. I only need the shawls when I go out walking, looking at the night sky, listening to the night hawks whistling and diving at their prey, and feeling the cooling sand near the creek beneath my feet. Mildred likes to see me in my shawls and scarves and long skirts walking under the moon. She likes me to wear soft, flowing things on this old body. She is not the flowing type herself.

The shawls comfort me when I go out to be alone. When you are working hard to invent things or paint or sculpt or write you must have time alone. If you don’t already know this, please believe me that it is true. Even living here now with Mildred, I must have time alone. I go off into the hills or go down with my papers to the arroyo and sit under the shade of tree to write. Others, no matter how close to you or how much they love you simply don’t understand this need to be alone. They are forever waiting for you to “finish,” something that may never happen when you are engaged in your work. Work, real work, does not have a beginning, middle and end. It is synonymous with your life. Others, unless they also have this kind of work, don’t get it. They are constantly lurking, fidgeting, calling one to meals that you don’t want or need. They desire, frequently, to tell you the outcome of a baseball game or surprise you with flowers. Well, you see what I mean. It makes for tiresome, unsatisfying relationships for everyone concerned. I know this from personal experience. You simply want to get out of it at any cost.

You see, the work of the mind, the work of the imagination, takes time. It must be nourished. Long, lonely walks are good. Dark nights under the stars are good. Hours in the bed in the confusion of a cold and fever are helpful. One cannot simply be walking about chatting and suffering every kind of interruption and distraction that comes along if one is to do one’s life’s work. One can, and often does, take time to do laundry or vacuum the floors. But even these chores must be done alone because the real work is always being churned about in one’s mind.

It is even harder to do this work of thinking, and imagining, and writing when you are part of a traditional culture. In such a culture, people have clear and deeply held beliefs about what you ought to be doing with your time. It is a fact, too, that in a traditional culture, one is surrounded constantly by people who wish to chat. That is why vision quests were invented. It was not so much that people wanted to gain power from their fasts and isolated times on mountain tops. They simply wanted to have time on their own to THINK. For most of one’s life, a person raised in a traditional culture just never hears his or her own original ideas. Nothing of much interest occurs to one if one is forever in conversation. Disagree with me if you like. But conversation simply drains me and others with whom I’ve discussed this issue. It is also clear to me that if one lives in a traditional culture that one has no opportunity to develop one’s own thoughts about what it is to be successful or what one might ever want to do with one’s life. It must be said, however, that more often than not, the chatting one hears is in one’s own head. Truly mature person have the knack of turning chatting into actual, useful introspection and thoughts.


The shawls are a comfort when I walk around the deserted ruins of Solución, too. The landscape is so bleak. There is nothing now to hold the heat at night as the old adobe bricks did. It is as if the great fire gathered all heat to itself and when it flamed out, it left nothing but a monstrous, unlivable chill on the land.



Elsie is Introduced: 1894-1900


Remember, Juanita was on a journey with horse, dogs, and baby. She had a mission. Remember? Surely you do. The dogs and the horse knew and took her directly to where she wished to go without needing to be told. Juanita was going to the house of HK. He would, she hoped, be willing to make a cradle for the baby Consuelo. She did not know that HK had a visitor. HK was one of many Indians in those days who had an anthropologist watching him day and night and asking him many questions all the while. I must tell you something about this anthropologist before Juanita meets her because she was an unusual woman.

Elsie was one who found time and maturity to be introspective and thereby to think for herself. She had come to the southwest to work long before I arrived. She was, as I said, an anthropologist. She became an anthropologist because she fell in love with a photograph.

She was not, of course, born an anthropologist. Elsie had been told all her life that she should become a wife and mother. She had been bred for these jobs in New York City where her own mother and father were rich, powerful, and Anglo-Saxon Protestants. Moreover, Elsie had been surrounded by chatting.

Elsie’s mother and father were not only chatters but were, you might say, demanding. They demanded much of Elsie in the way of conventionality. This is something I know quite a bit about.

Elsie’s mother wore long fur coats and her father dressed in tails and top hats. Elsie was expected to dress in gowns and accompany them everywhere. “Come darling, hurry along now. Don’t dawdle. Pick up your feet. Don’t stomp. It’s common. Hold your head high. There’s a dear.” Everywhere was the theater and the opera and fancy dinner parties.

Elsie was sent to all the finest boarding schools in the northeast and summered in on the eastern seacoasts, often pluckily sailing about far from shore with this or that young fellow. She was taught how to pack picnic baskets with lovely roast ducks and chocolate cakes. She was taught how to make delightfully decorative ribbon sandwiches and perfect lemonade. She was taught to dress in gauzy mauve or lemon gowns and smile constantly in order to seem to be amused by everything and everyone. Scowling was explicitly disallowed. “Let’s see a big smile now. Don’t frown dear, your face will be frozen like that. You’ll get wrinkles.” Wrinkles were to be avoided as was anything else that might, her mother thought, make one unattractive. “Get out of that sun dear. Your hat. Where is your hat? This will never do.”

She learned to accept the lighting of her cigarette in such a way as to pull young men closer to her and bind them to her, thus causing them to believe that she was in love with them. Her mother approved of smoking because it was associated with the performance of seduction of men of wealth.

She held the cigarette to her barely parted lips. She held it lightly between the fingers of her right hand. She bent her head just so slightly and looked first at the end of the cigarette and then, without moving her head, up into the eyes of the man with the lighter. Then she looked down again and then up into his eyes again as the flame sizzled the tip. She inhaled deeply then, through pouty lips, expelled the smoke slowly, raising her eyes to his. The trick was to hold his gaze for several seconds. Then she could do with him what she pleased.

All this lighting of cigarettes was considered quite an art among women of her class and age and Elsie was the best. So the men followed her about with lighters and European stick matches and watched her constantly for the least sign that she might want a cigarette lit. Some offered her cigarettes from slim, highly polished gold cases they carried in the breast pockets of their jackets.

Men who did not and had not ever smoked now carried these cigarette cases about on the chance that they might encounter Elsie. They looked for lighters in expensive jewelry stores. They found some gold ones and some jeweled ones and ones that promised not to fail. They found some that promised a flame upon a gentle flick. To flick and produce no fire was not at all impressive. And these young men wished to impress.

When Elsie prepared for an evening out, she pulled her light brown hair into a tangled unconstructed bun atop her head and wore her dresses low below her shoulders. Elsie had wonderful shoulders and beautiful full breasts. Her neck was slender and her nose was perfectly tilted.


When Elsie went out, she dined on salmon paté and smoked oysters. She drank champagne and danced divinely having spent hours of her youth in dancing classes wearing cotton gloves and suffering boys with rooster hair and frozen feet. As much as she hated these classes, as with everything else, she was a quick study and never forgot anything once learned. She hated this life, but she was good at it. Her rebellion did not come until somewhat later. In the meantime, she enjoyed being very good at what was expected.


Her mother spoke to her of household management. “Now darling. Husbands cannot be bothered with the day-to-day problems of running a house. Husbands,” she said, “must never hear of your problems with staff. You are to order groceries, supervise cooks and maids, solve the problems of plumbing or any other domestic crises. Never ever let on that there are any problems in the home. The home is a sanctuary for the man.” Elsie was encouraged to take notes. She did write in a little book when her mother instructed her. However, she wrote nothing of what her mother was telling her. “Pay all the bills,” her mother said. “Look for a book on the history of the Oregon Trail,” Elsie wrote. “Design menus, organize parties, issue invitations,” her mother said. “Visit the Museum of Natural History and take a ride in Central Park this week,” Elsie wrote. “Pay the gardeners. Ask your husband if he’d like to have his gentlemen friends over for an entertainment,” her mother said. “See if you can get out of your bedroom window and out into the street without being detected,” Elsie wrote.

Elsie was, she was told, never to complain or ask for more money or talk at all of any problems when the husband returned from the office. She yawned. The exterior world, she was told, would be the husband’s domain. He was to go off to his bank or law office and do whatever. He would, she was told, come home exhausted from his day of clubs and cigars and luncheons. He would be quite taxed by having gazed now and then at columns of numbers in his office. He would need, of course, complete rest, a good meal, and sweet, considerate conversation that required no thought. In her notebook, Elsie drew a picture of a fat man with large moustaches and mutton chops slumped in a chair behind a table scattered with turkey carcasses and empty bottle.

As you may have gathered, Elsie thought, from the time she could think at all and in whatever infrequent few minutes alone she had to think, that all of this was boring. She thought being a wife the most insufferable kind of future she could imagine. In spite of objections from her parents, one day she announced, “I have enrolled at Columbia University.” “For what purpose?” her father asked. “I’ll not have a daughter of mine becoming a common teacher,” her mother exclaimed. Indeed, Elsie had no particular goal or course of study in mind. However, she ignored the objections and questions of her parents, started her classes and soon discovered interests.

Discovering interests can be a frightening thing. It can set you apart from peers. It can damage your identity or, at the very least, poke holes in it. At the very most, discovering interests can bring your whole being  into question. Discovering interests is a dangerous thing. Your vocabulary may come to include words that are off-putting to friends and family. For example, Elsie came to discuss topics such as justice and equality at the dinner table. Elsie wondered aloud about sexual behaviors of all sorts.

Discovering interests might lead you to begin to light your own cigarettes as Elsie did.

During one of her after class visits to the Museum of Natural History, she saw a new display. There was a large placard at the front of the oversized glass case. On it, she read about a weaver woman-man who made blankets bigger than the average New York storefront. Behind the placard, hanging from the very ceiling, was one of these grand blankets. In another case, she saw pictures of the weaver, a lovely face, a dark and lovely face, looking squarely at her from an ornate golden frame. She saw his loom, or rather a replica of it, installed in yet another case. She yearned to meet this man-woman and see him work. She wanted to watch his hands on the loom. She wanted to hear his story. For the first time in her life, she wanted to offer someone else a cigarette.

She forgot about the young men with the cigarette cases and instead gazed at replicas of ancient human skulls and shelves of baskets from the West and great Southwest. And she decided that she would be an anthropologist for she understood that it was anthropologists who were privileged to study such things for their entire lives.

Elsie found out who taught such things as anthropology at Columbia and went the following Monday after classes to find the new lecturer, Franz Boas.

She stood facing his office for a few moments, composing herself, and knocked at his door. “Come in,” he called out in a thick German accent. She opened the door, twisting the brass knob slowly and pushing the door an inch at a time. He was seated behind a large oak desk, bent over a letter he was writing to his wife, still in Germany:

November 4 1899

“My dear sweet wife,

I must write to you this afternoon so that my letter will go with the mail at eleven tomorrow. If only I could be with you tomorrow and greet you and kiss you and my Bubbichen. Dear, I haven’t heard from you for so long that I’m feeling quite bad again. How is our Bubbichen doing? He won’t recognize me again, I fear! ……………”


On his desk was a table top miniature of his lovely wife herself. Stuck into one leather corner of his heavily stained desk blotter was a small photograph of a baby in a handsome christening dress. He looked from one image to the other between the sentences that he wrote.

Elsewhere, on wooden bookcases and shelves that reached to the ceiling, were hundreds of bound manuscripts, maps in large rolls stacked like firewood, and complex Kwakiutl transformation masks. Bear and Raven stared out at Elsie through dark, ellipsoid eyes. Elsie stared too, but her eyes were fixed on Dr. Boas.

He was a slender, intense man with a dramatically high forehead due to hair loss, a neatly trimmed Van Dyke beard, and a relatively bushy moustache. He wore a suit made of worsted wool, for money was scarce and most of what he had he sent back to his family, and a tie neatly knotted around his high stiffly starched collar.


“Sit please,” he said without looking up. His ink pen moved quietly across the page before him.

She moved carefully into a golden oak pressed back chair placed directly across the desk from him. She continued to take stock of the office while he finished his work.

“There.” He looked up. “I needed only to finish the thought. And for you? What might I do then?”

“Professor,” Elsie said. “I wish to become an anthropologist.”

“Ah, yes. Of course you do.”

“Professor. What should I do? What should I read.”

“Very simple. Let me give you a few suggestions. When you have read these, come back and we will see. Edward Tyler of course. And Darwin. You’ve read Darwin, yes? Morgan, Powell. Comte, Engels, Marx. You must be prepared to engage in the significant intellectual debates of our time. We will see then. We will see.”

The books were not really about Indians on the whole. She was puzzled, but buried herself in these dense volumes.

She returned in a few weeks. She had done her homework well. The professor was delighted. “And now leibling,” he said. “The work begins.” He began to tutor her nearly daily. After just a few weeks with him, Elsie’s identity was thoroughly poked. She had more and more time to think. She had time to imagine. I think Boas must have been quite intriguing at the time. I heard much about him and had classes with some teachers who were close to him. But he had died before I enrolled. I worked with Mead and Benedict, but they were respectful of Boas and so I didn’t hear any stories about him directly from them. These stars of the field were off working for the United States government and fighting tyranny when I was getting started. Mead was an outspoken member of the Committee of National Morale, a group of academics that were dedicated to furthering the war effort among Americans. She was also lecturing here and there and somehow involved with Eleanor Roosevelt and a group called the Committee on Food Habits. So I didn’t see much of her except for the occasional lecture. I was admitted to a field seminar with Benedict after my first summer in the Southwest. Ruth was writing The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, was working for the Office of War Information and doing little teaching.

So the first months of my education as an anthropologist were quite different from those experienced by Elsie. I was stuck in courses taught largely by pale, boring WWII draft dodgers with little experience in the field. I was thoroughly bored with kinship charts and courses on pig raising, land tenure, and conflict resolution among the Turkana by the end of that first year.


Elsie, however, was inspired by Boas himself and by her romantic notions of the American Southwest. “I must dress like an anthropologist,” she thought to herself. “You are far too conventional,” some of her Bohemian classmates told her. Elsie  agreed and retrieved a pair of Indian jodhpurs from her closet. These were a bit worn from riding lessons she had taken and the gallops she’d had in the park over the past few years. But they were still serviceable and still fit her trim little body. Elsie acquired a mail order catalogue from a major Midwestern distributor. From the catalogue, she ordered a leather jacket and deep brown, felted Western hat with concho band. Egged on by some young students with whom she lunched, she visited a novelty clothing store in midtown Manhattan. There she found some high-heeled, tooled leather boots, and a rainbow striped Seminole vest made in Florida.

When all the bits and pieces of her new identity were assembled, she dressed herself in them, strode down the stairs of her parents’ immense home, and sat clumsily at the dinner table. “Good God,” her mother moaned. “What is the meaning of this?” her father asked, but continued to carve the roast.

She began to appear around the city looking like, her mother thought, a wild thing. Her mother insisted, of course, that all this nonsense stop. “My dear, this will not do. You must cease this foolish behavior or you’ll never find a husband.” Her mother stamped her little feet, her lovely and elaborate coiffure waggling with each insistent step. Elsie ignored her.

In fact, Elsie became even more daring. Her own hair came down from the confines of the bun and fell around her neck and shoulders. It gleamed and moved like seaweed in a swift river as she walked the several blocks to her classrooms carrying a load of anthropology books. She took her lunch now not with the other young ladies of her mother’s circle but while staring at cases of stone projectile points and carved Kwakiutl canoes in the Museum of Natural History. Dr. Boas had procured that canoe and most of the other items in the collection that stirred her heart.

Her mother locked herself in her room during this period of Elsie’s life. Her mother cried and did not answer calls and did not ever come downstairs. “I cannot face it,” she cried from deep inside her silk comforter. She became a sort of Bertha Mason, Bronte’s classic mad woman in the attic. She liked and even cultivated the image, Jane Eyre being one of her favorite books. Of course she did not go out into the streets or attend parties or arrange dinners. In fact her poor household management became a subject of gossip. But she ignored such talk if she happened to hear of it. Elsie’s naughtiness was, she secretly felt, a kind of godsend. Her meals were sent up. She ordered flowers and chocolate for herself. She read novels.

The husband, Elsie’s father, was now forced to work out of the home during the day and give orders to domestic staff by night. The universe he’d always known was in shambles. All of this, he declared, was “entirely improper.” The marriage was terribly strained.

Elsie did not care. “I don’t care,” she said, tossing her unbound head. She came into the house with new purpose. She stomped about on the gleaming wood floors in her boots. She ignored the father’s pleas that she should leave off these new behaviors. “My darling daughter. Your mother is distressed and the servants are overwrought. At the very least, you might learn to walk like a lady in those boots instead of a, well, a farmhand.” The household staff grimly scrubbed and polished the floors each day. The butler stoically swept up the trails of sand and dust that gathered in the carpets and the rugs each place Elsie stepped.

Elsie ate nothing now but rich dark pot roasts and boiled potatoes. She drank pots of dark coffee. She ate and planned for nothing but her trip to the West where she would go for field work with Dr. Boas’ guidance and blessing. It was her goal, of course, to meet the weaver she had seen in the photograph.


Elsie read her anthropology books as well as maps and guidebooks. She read books on Navajo language and social structure. She saw her teacher everyday now and thought of patterns of culture and kinship and poetry. She thought no more of coming-out cotillions. Elsie, instead, wore bandanas and rolled her own.

You might wonder if I ever met Elsie. Elsie had retired from teaching full time during the time I was in Moa Nui. She turned seventy during my post-doc work in New York. There was a huge party held in her honor and I was there when she gave a lengthy, colorful after dinner talk about her life in the Southwest and her relationship with HK. HK himself was the surprise guest and sat there at the speakers’ table next to her tossing in jokes and bawdy details as she spoke. She was an elegant woman with a tanned face and full pink lips. She had piles and piles of thick white hair, piercing blue eyes, and was covered with enough pawn jewelry to decorate a whole village. HK dressed as he always had, in deeply cut velvet shirts, broad red headbands, and turquoise. His face was deeply rutted, but his eyes were clear and his hair was still black and gleaming.

I was told many stories about her from others who had known her at the party and from some of my teachers. Ruth had been one of her students and told tales about her occasionally when I had the chance class with her. All I heard at Columbia corroborated what I heard about her from the villagers, that she was a handsome, fierce, demanding woman who loved HK in a peculiar sort of way. She was loath to be away from him for even a day. So this is the Elsie who was HK’s visitor when Juanita decided to ride out to his house.

About Llyn De Danaan

LLyn De Danaan is an anthropologist and author. She writes fiction and nonfiction. Katie Gale: A Coast Salish Woman's Life on Oyster Bay was published by the University of Nebraska Press. She is currently a speaker for Humanities Washington.
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