Right from the start, Kaethe Schwehn's "Tailings" hints at what's to come. Bearing the title "Nine Switchbacks," the opening chapter's first paragraph employs language and imagery that is at once contemplative and visceral to establish a sense of arrival and set the scene of a remote Lutheran retreat center in the Cascade Mountains.
For the author, the cold here is "a firecracker to the chest." And the zigzag road itself takes on animation as the writer experiences it: "Nine switchbacks and the road gets dizzy with the sway, needs to catch a breath" and finally "stutters" as it reaches the retreat village.
This would-be Eden is no garden spot. Set on the site of an old mine, its buildings stand among the refuse or "tailings" of the copper mining operation. Heaped 150 feet high, the tailings are impressive if not attractive, speaking of an enterprise that was once rapacious of the Earth but is now finished.
This story of new beginnings starts with endings as the narrator faces the slow, creaking close of a relationship with a lover she calls "My Intended" and also sees her mother, who has been divorced, step into an independent life.
As the narrator wends her way through the not-so-simple routines of what is supposed to be simple living, she observes and participates in a community of seekers — all longing for a sense of direction and of faith — who are determined to live intentionally as they stand at the center of the crossroads of their lives. Whether they are wiping down a dining table, climbing a mound of tailings, singing hymns or shoveling masses of snow, members of this community do everything with such intent and intensity that it becomes clear that this retreat is more a place of reckoning than a haven for escape.
It is not easy to write fluidly of earnestness. Nor is it simple to lend a real radiance to depictions of epiphanies. Even more challenging is to make the story of an individual's inner journey — particularly one that is not endowed with outwardly different or especially dramatic challenges — engaging and meaningful to readers.
But thanks to her command of language and her well-placed use of imagery, Schwehn nudges the reader into the physical as well as contemplative experience. She also seems to know that small glimmers are more effective than a spotlight in giving a sense of dimension to epiphanies and insights.
Wisely, she does not inflate the significance of her own quest. These elements endow this memoir with grace itself — and that is the achievement and appeal of this remarkably absorbing tale.
Rosemary Herbert is a longtime literary critic and the author of "Front Page Teaser: A Liz Higgins Mystery." She lives in Maine.