Reviewed by Barbara Glass
From a thickly textured painting of old Central Texas comes Mayhem, a novel by Elizabeth Harris. Look closely between the gnarled limbs of trees and the unforgiving prairie and you’ll find Evelyn Kunkle Gant, her German relatives and Prince Carl County residents. As you follow the swirls of dry wind and hot sun, moral struggles flow like ghosts out of the woods. Communities are interconnected culturally and make efficient use of scarce resources. These hard-working people live such tightly disciplined, spare and austere lives, that strong visceral emotions cause “mayhem” — seismically rippling throughout their whole society.
Convert dry wind and wood to fine verbal imagery and, with the author’s guidance, we follow Evelyn’s life story. We are introduced to the sin that was at once preventable and inevitable: the clash between orderly lives and chaos, and the redemption that does not follow church doctrine. Despite living a strictly ordered and moral life, good people sometimes do bad things and the bad guys sometimes do win. It is part choice and part short-sightedness, as if these characters are constrained morally by the very precepts that bind their society together. Like the wood imagery that pervades, sometimes it is strong and beautiful, sometimes evil lurks among the trees.
Although Mayhem is a novel, it presents a carefully researched reality of early Central Texas life. Elizabeth Harris does a masterful job of taking us back to Texas in the early 1900s and follows Evelyn’s life story within the context of her time. It may not be fact, but it is not pure fiction either. Mayhem is a woman’s story of choice and survival.