220 Pages; Print, $18.95
Tara Mantel’s novel-in-stories, Elemental is dedicated “To all those who are haunted,” a fitting epigraph for a book in which characters are plagued by hallucinations, addictions, headaches, ghosts, or a “misguided imagination.” Toward the end of the novel, a character named Danni delivers a eulogy at her brother’s funeral, and when she speaks “about all the people who fall through the cracks, about the failure of signs and systems,” it is as if Danni is describing all of the characters who occupy these stories.
Elemental is divided into four parts: “Earth,” “Air,” “Fire,” and “Water,” with each part composed of three chapters (although “Fire” has four). The book follows several characters from 1950–2008. While the stories are set primarily in the harsh plains of North Dakota, a place where “the earth swallowed you whole, and the prairie moon shadowed mind and memory,” Mantel creates an impression of movement among her restless characters. People are constantly leaving and returning—running away and being found, following railroad tracks and getting lost, being institutionalized and released, dying and disturbing the living—so that the potential is great for these characters to “haunt” both one another and the reader.
The linked-story structure serves this book well. Characters are brought to life and then vanish until several chapters later, in which they reappear differently—older, in a new life, or from a different perspective. By organizing these stories in this way, Mantel creates for the reader the kind of limited, fragmented connections with her characters that they maintain with one another.
The book begins, “In 1950, Dorrie, a farmer’s wife, had an unusual visitor.” As we soon find out, the “unusual visitor” is the ghost of a Lakota Chief, referred to as “The Chief.” Although Dorrie and her husband Henry have three children, Angela, Bethany, and Ives, Dorrie’s primary focus and concern is The Chief. She accommodates him in various ways, like making him not-too-sweet lemonade and offering him her body: “Her body opened to him, and she felt his weight upon her, a specific form and slide, a brush against her calf ….her hair smoothed back by his massive palm. Her legs opened and he entered her, a great wash, ripples of magnificent consecration.” Here and throughout this chapter, we can see that The Chief is as much a part of Dorrie’s material reality as, say, her children or the porch Henry is building.
Toward the end of the chapter, there is a great hail storm, interpreted by Dorrie as a sign that The Chief is angry about Henry building a porch on their house since beneath the porch is a burial ground. Dorrie feels she must appease The Chief, and in her attempts to do so, she drops a goat—Bethany’s goat, a beloved pet—into the well. In this passage it is clear that, from Dorrie’s perspective, she has little choice but to do The Chief’s bidding: “Before she could…understand how the goat had gotten there, she saw it glow—its whole body shimmering, its desire perfectly clear to her. Its succumbing was beautiful, and she could see why The Chief chose it.” Here and throughout this opening chapter, Dorrie’s encounters with The Chief, while bizarre, are convincing. That is, I’m convinced that Dorrie believes whole-heartedly in the veracity of her relationship with this supernatural being. I feel the urgency in her need to satisfy The Chief so that he won’t abandon her, and I want her to succeed.
Two Chapters later, in “Bethany Writes Letters,” we see what having Dorrie as a mother was like from one daughter’s perspective. Bethany is now in a psychiatric institution and composes letters to her sister Angie. In one of the letters, she writes, “Do you remember how mom would take off all her clothes in the family room and start masturbating? And that weird whispering she’d do?” This is life with The Chief, only The Chief as phantom. Because this chapter is written...