‘Tailings’ definitely a book worth seeking out

Published 9:42 am Wednesday, September 16, 2015


By Angie Zoller Barker

Tailings are the leftovers when ore is processed — the environmentally toxic bits that remain after the valuable parts are removed and the bifurcation of the adored and the loathed. Holden Village is located next to what was once the largest copper mine in the United States in the Cascade Mountains in Washington. Tailings can be found throughout the area and according to author Kaethe Schwehn, within some of the villagers — metaphorically anyway.

Angie Zoller Barker

Angie Zoller Barker

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Her memoir, “Tailings,” is a reflective look back on the nine months spent at Holden Village after a breakup and before graduate school. Schwehn is at a crossroads, and Holden Village in all its isolated wintry glory is the purgatory of her choosing: “The village is a place to live when you are between two parts of your life… a liminal space, a way of dwelling deliberately in the unknown.”

Schwehn’s story is an intersection of faith, grief and hope. Like the tailings left on the side of the mountain, the novel is Schwehn’s mining of her past. She intertwines the history of Holden mine with her own past and present, and the two narrative threads feel bigger, denser through the juxtaposition so that when you reach the end you are surprised at the 121-page count. Schwehn is economical with her words, but the stark narrative doesn’t diminish the weight of her story. Her prose becomes a linguistic representation of the quiet power of her insulated mountain top. You can’t help but read it in a whispered voice inside your own head that makes you feel an intimacy with her.

“Tailings” is “about turning inward to reflect before turning outward to serve the world.” Who are we? What do we want and what does our desire say about us? I’ll admit that I’m addicted to memoirs written by females between the ages of 25 to 40. I am their target demographic, and I happily meet publisher expectations by consuming these novels with gusto. These questions about what it means to be a woman in America are usually at the heart of them all. The memoir is the perfect vehicle to unpack this complex subject. It can’t be explained by one person, but each unique story contributes to the choir of female voices. The more women who add their voice, the clearer the picture becomes. Schwehn’s voice is raw and rich and worth seeking out.

Schwehn will be the featured author on Sept. 22 at the Albert Lea Public Library.

From the Albert Lea Public Library website: Kaethe’s memoir, “Tailings,” is about her time spent at Holden Village, a Lutheran retreat center in Washington. It is a Minnesota Book Award-winning memoir. Copies are available for checkout and request at the Albert Lea Public Library. Members free. Join at the door for $5. Free to students with current school ID. This event will begin with the annual meeting of the Friends of the Albert Lea Public Library, and the author’s program will follow.


Angie Zoller Barker is an Albert Lea native and earned a Bachelor of Arts in English literature.