Imagine a ghost story where the phantoms are the enduring spirits of children who have suffered violent deaths. In life they belonged to loving if somewhat dysfunctional families with parents who tried to protect them from a malevolent world. Now, however, they haunt their pained and broken parents. What all the ghosts in Robert Vivian's eerie and beautifully written novel "Water and Abandon" (Bison Books/University of Nebraska Press, 240 pages, $18.95) have in common is their location. Their bodily remains lie on the floor of the Sicangu, a polluted river that winds through western Nebraska.

The main thread of the novel concerns Kelsey Little, a 17-year-old honors student, who walks away from her parents' house late one evening, only to be plucked out of the Sicangu three weeks later. Vivian opens the story a year later, when grief and anxiety have led Hank and Sam, the doting parents, to alcoholic binges, self-delusion and isolation from each other. Miles across town, Kelsey's boyfriend, Javier, is overcome by self-recrimination. This, Vivian seems to be saying, is how ghosts really possess the living.

At the same time, the author offers a complementary plot, Kelsey's own narrative of her wandering, that enables the reader to understand the motivations that no one else can see. Determined and intelligent, she makes her way south in an evil world that requires no supernatural flourishes. It's all pretty terrifying.

"Water and Abandon" offers readers a walk on the dark side of the emotional spectrum. Everyone in Dark Vespers (the town where the Littles live) has apparently suffered the loss of a child and has worked to develop strategies to numb the pain. Most developed is Ike Parrish, a local junk picker, whose wife and child died 40 years earlier. He is given to self-destruction until he is taken up by an elderly Pawnee woman, who teaches him the healing properties of the river. Ike's "river spells" (epilepsy?) enable him to "see" the fate of the children as they meet their deaths in the Sicangu, and Kelsey's mother hangs upon his words.

This is an eloquent novel and Vivian devotes much attention to the Sicangu, once a pristine waterway, now full of chemical runoff, shopping carts, tires and, of course, corpses. To Vivian, the river seems to be a watery text that few can read, describing the history of a dangerous and demented society: "Down in the river was where the truth was and the tattooed calligraphy of every last chance, final messages, and points of no return that opened onto the flashing doorways of minnow cages and the gills of giant carp and catfish." For Vera Two Smokes, the Pawnee shaman, the Sicangu "showed her the mystery of everything that was, taking her far beyond the province of judgment or explanation." "Water and Abandon" is rich in mystery -- and insight and horror, as well.

Tom Zelman teaches English at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.