Skip to main content

The Rending and the Nest


The Rending and the Nest

In 1957, I was introduced to the Bomb and its terrors by my seventh-grade teacher. Around the same time, I read Nevil Shute’s ON THE BEACH, in which the last few people on earth wait to die of radiation sickness. I did two things after that: joined SANE (Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy) and had nightmares of explosive or lingering death.

These days, more and more gifted writers are stepping outside the boundaries of “realistic” fiction to create visions of post-apocalyptic culture, often extrapolating from the most dangerous features of present-day life. There is also a subgenre set in worlds where some or most of the population has mysteriously vanished: THE LEFTOVERS, GONE, STATION ELEVEN.

THE RENDING AND THE NEST belongs to this latter group. It is Kaethe Schwehn’s first fiction, but not her first book: TAILINGS: A Memoir (2014) dealt with her ambiguous experience, as a young woman, in a remote Christian community of 70 people. The fictional village here is the same size and, she has said, similar in many details. There’s considerable autobiography in this lyrically written novel, a fascinating mash-up of midwestern mall and pilgrim’s progress.

The premise: Three years ago, in a cataclysmic event known as the Rending, 95 percent of the world’s people, animals, food and goods vanished. On that day, Mira was a 17-year-old shopping at the Mall of America in Bloomington (Schwehn is from Minnesota) with her little brother. She aches with guilt, feeling that she abandoned him. Now 20, she’s had to grow up fast, without a family.

She and the other survivors live on root vegetables, odd fruits (the weather, always sunless and mild, provides enough moisture for basic agriculture) and anything they can salvage from vast stacks of random objects called Piles. They have organized themselves into communities, some cruel and unsavory, others apparently benign. Mira is lucky enough to land in Zion, a reasonably stable and rule-bound village.

Schwehn’s book is a wilderness story of sorts, a scarcity adventure like ROBINSON CRUSOE. It’s as if some unknown power has given the Zionites just enough to get by; they make do with what they have. Work is omnipresent. Everything is made of parts of something else, nothing is pristine, all is repurposed or preowned, in modern parlance (can this be a wry comment on current efforts to combat waste and overconsumption?).

"Schwehn’s book is a wilderness story of sorts, a scarcity adventure like ROBINSON CRUSOE.... Maybe the world of THE RENDING AND THE NEST isn’t exactly The Emerald City, but it isn’t Kansas --- or Minnesota --- as we know it, either. It’s well worth the trip."

THE RENDING AND THE NEST is also a coming-of-age tale, a young woman’s quest to find love and identity. Mira’s job is to scavenge from the Piles. She keeps a notebook where she lists things the community needs and things from Before that she longs for: stars, lima beans, insects, lightning. Barely out of adolescence, she has a thing for Rodney, a big, hunky guy who rescued her from a creepy security guard at the time of the Rending. She hesitates to approach him, while her more sophisticated friend, Lana, has made herself the community’s sex provider (Zion is 3:1 male). As the book opens, Lana discovers she is pregnant.

Shockingly, Lana and the other pregnant women who succeed her give birth to objects rather than living children. The mothers are both repelled by and obsessed with their progeny: a recipe for madness that leads one to commit suicide. To make Zion’s bizarre offspring less disturbing, Mira creates Nests for the Babies, built of whatever she can scrounge, while Lana organizes rituals to name and protect them.

That’s the gist of Part One. In Part Two, a different kind of tension arrives with Michael, a beautiful but spooky visitor from a place called the Zoo. His godlike certainty appeals to people’s desperate need to find meaning in the Rending, to get answers. He is seductive and, in Mira’s opinion, dangerous, yet Lana chooses to leave with him. When she doesn’t return within the promised time, a pregnant Mira organizes a rescue party. Everything is in place for a clash between Zion’s humanity and the Zoo’s loathsome combination of exhibitionism and voyeurism (an extreme version of reality TV?).

In Part Three, the women of Zion and their Babies find temporary refuge from the Zoo in a all-female lakeside community called the Asylum, founded by Noons (“nuns without the God part,” as their elderly leader puts it). But it’s fruitless to evade a final confrontation with Michael. The Zionites have to face their fears and make their own kind of safety.

THE RENDING AND THE NEST is a novel in which questions of religion and morality are important. Schwehn makes Mira’s father a pastor, and the lengthy title has a biblical cadence. But two things save the book from getting overly didactic. First, from what I’ve read about her memoir, the author’s relationship to religion is complex, neither credulous nor skeptical, so her protagonist’s is as well. Post-Rending life has crushed this sheltered girl’s former faith, and she must struggle to reclaim some kind of conviction, to realize that storytelling --- narratives, secular or sacred, that emphasize “life instead of death, hope instead of despair” --- is essential. 

Second, the book’s existential ponderings are balanced by a suspenseful plot, full-bodied characters, and juicy, sensuous writing. Schwehn is sometimes witty (“Why is it that when men don’t know how to support a woman they simply go into sporting event mode?” asks Lana when one guy acknowledges her pregnancy with a high five) or ferocious (when Mira and Rodney finally make love, she is “fierce and ragged,” a “boiling mess of need and want”). Often her language is flat-out gorgeous. The Zionite women’s discovery that the Noons’ compound is covered with moss conjures a marvelous scene: “It was a patchwork carpet, forest green and lime green and fluorescent green and every Crayola green in between.... [A]bundant green, the green that swizzles inside your chest and spreads out its parachute arms in springtime --- it had been five years since we’d been inside that kind of green.... ‘I think we made it to Oz,’ Lana whispered.”

Maybe the world of THE RENDING AND THE NEST isn’t exactly The Emerald City, but it isn’t Kansas --- or Minnesota --- as we know it, either. It’s well worth the trip.

Reviewed by Katherine B. Weissman on February 23, 2018

The Rending and the Nest
by Kaethe Schwehn

  • Publication Date: February 20, 2018
  • Genres: Fiction, Post-Apocalyptic Fiction
  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
  • ISBN-10: 1632869721
  • ISBN-13: 9781632869722