Tara Mantel, a University of Minnesota graduate, sets “Elemental,” a novel in stories, in North Dakota between 1950 and 2008. An ambitious if somewhat obscure book, “Elemental” concerns the fortunes “of two white families and several Lakota women.”
West of Bismarck, the Lakota spirit world vexes the “dismayed [European] immigrants” who reside there or, more precisely, their children and grandchildren. “Here, the earth swallowed you whole, and the prairie moon shadowed mind and memory,” muses Dorrie, a farm woman bedeviled by an imaginary Lakota chief. The weather and the endless horizons undo people’s minds. “We go crazy out here,” Dorrie’s husband tells a Lakota woman several pages later in “Burials,” as they watch the construction of the Garrison Dam. With the course of the Upper Missouri River soon to change, “Your dam will create orphans,” the Lakota woman predicts. “Babies will cry. There will be long and severe addictions.”
Even seemingly innocuous events harm the Lakota and curse newcomers, as when Dorrie’s husband adds a porch to the farmhouse, building it over “something that needed air … a burial ground.” In time, his wife goes insane; one daughter, Bethany, “the devil’s child,” is institutionalized, and others wander from home.
Where Dorrie’s family once lived, an Indian woman and her half-sister, Sky, a healer, now dwell. They alone cannot save the many orphans, both real and metaphorical, they care for. As prophesied, those at odds with the earth — dam builders, their children, other whites — will suffer addictions or end up “sedated” in places “for the disturbed or deranged or possessed.”
Mantel divides her novel into sections called Earth, Air, Fire, Water. The author gambles so often in creating this mythopoetic universe that her reach sometimes exceeds her grasp. It’s as if too much is at stake, too much has to be told. Yet what an impressive attempt this is.
Mantel’s rich prose, her observations of nature, her use of numbers and recurring images of caves, lockets, nails and the like often produce surprising results. In a way, these images become sub-elements in a dual universe of the mystical and the rational.
Finally, however, too many characters run away from home or go insane, leaving readers to wonder toward the end which character is which.
Redundancies notwithstanding, “Elemental” represents an impressive debut (and was winner of the Tartts First Fiction Award). Readers may be reminded of other important authors. Mantel’s emphasis on dysfunctional families, their secrets and the cursed land might recall William Faulkner. Her emphasis on the decaying home place filled with memories might remind some of the work of Wright Morris or of William Goyen’s splendid, neglected mid-20th-century American novel, “The House of Breath.” This is good company for a writer. Mantel deserves a place here.
Anthony Bukoski, a short-story writer, lives in Superior, Wis.