Dystopian novels often depict a Mad Max-like world where gangs of armed thugs run roughshod over everyone else. Not so for Northfield writer Kaete Schwehn.
Her story follows people in and around the Twin Cities struggling to build a working community after a mysterious global cataclysm.
Schwehn's novel, "The Rending and the Nest," describes life after the Rending, the day everything changes. For a young woman named Mira, it happens in a place familiar to many Minnesotans.
"She sort of passes out in the middle of the Mall of America, in H&M," said Schwehn, who teaches writing at St. Olaf College. "She has sent her brother off to ride a roller coaster. And when she comes to, it sort of looks like a herd of locusts has gone through the entire store and it's been picked over, and there's no human beings around."
Mira soon discovers the world has changed immensely and inexplicably.
"Ninety-five percent of the population and the goods and animals are just simply gone," Schwehn said.
Sitting at her dining room table in Northfield, Schwehn said "The Rending and the Nest" becomes a story of people trying to work out what's happened. Can they can ever return things to the way they were? If not, how are they to live in the remnants of what's left?
"There's so much of the population gone that there really aren't political systems left ruling these places," she said. "But what you do have is different communities, and people structuring those communities in different ways."
But don't let talk of community-building fool you. This is a fun, fast-moving read. Mira joins Zion, an idiosyncratic community on the outskirts of what was once the Twin Cities.
It bears similarities to a community where Schwehn once lived herself. Her Minnesota Book Award-winning memoir, "Tailings," told that story. She moved for a year into an isolated Christian community in the mountains in Washington state. It was a place built around ritual, with no phones or television.
"There's a lot of space for reflection and loneliness, and you could go off at any time by yourself, but that probably wouldn't be the wisest plan in the world," she said with a grin.
The 9/11 attacks happened while she was there. The community only learned of them later. "It wasn't that we didn't feel the effects of that event, but I think we felt it very differently," she said.
When Schwehn writes, she said, she just plows ahead. It's only later that she understands what's behind her words — as, for example, she now sees echoes of that isolated community. Also in the novel is Schwehn's experience helping friends deal with the sadness of miscarriages. In the story, pregnancy becomes another inexplicable experience.
"I think one of the questions I was trying to figure out is, what aspects of religion might we actually need to rely on in order to make sense out of things that are inexplicable or mysterious," she said.
Schwehn's characters begin focusing on the need for ritual as people struggle with what's happening to them.
Things become tense when Zion comes in contact with another community. It lives at the Minnesota Zoo, and has developed its own approach to the uncertainty. It's both attractive and repellant to Zion's inhabitants. That tension will ultimately change both communities.
She set early drafts of the story in Florida, but quickly realized she needed to put the story in a place she knew well. It was a blast to imagine a post-Rending Mall of America, she said. And "it was so fun to imagine what would happen if human beings got to encounter the zoo as a place to inhabit once the animals were gone."
Schwehn said she hopes the novel doesn't frustrate readers expecting a neatly tied conclusion. That rarely happens in real life, so why should a dystopia be any different?
Schwehn will launch "The Rending and the Nest" at Imminent Brewing in Northfield Thursday evening and hold readings in St. Paul next week.