I teach a course on visions of the future in film and fiction. From their reading and viewing, my students quickly realize that when the apocalypse happens, totalitarianism in one form or another is likely, good people will do bad things and nature will abandon us, making food and water as scarce as our decency. In "The Dead Lands," Minnesota author Benjamin Percy takes these motifs and does magnificent things with them, creating a cleverly crafted thriller with monsters and magic from imagining the journey of Lewis and Clark as a post-apocalyptic quest.
Set years after "missiles scorched the sky" to destroy a pandemic, the novel opens in a kind of medieval St. Louis (known as the Sanctuary) where "everything is sunken and leaning and crumbling and patched together." Under the heavy sword of a dictator, it's a world "covered with a dusty skin" where "America is a myth" and people are marked with melanomas while gigantic mutant animals roam outside the Sanctuary's walls.
Wearing a "long grey duster," Lewis Meriwether is the curator of the Sanctuary's museum, a fragile man even those in power fear. Lewis is "the wizard in the tower, the hermit in the cave," a "magician, a miracle worker, an aberration."
Mina Clark is a "woman of great appetites." She's a sentinel for the Sanctuary, a skilled ranger whose job is to scavenge inside and outside the walls for supplies when she's not "patrolling the perimeter" for wanderers or worse.
When a stranger with supernatural powers, Gawea (think Sagatchawea) arrives at the wall carrying a letter from her leader, Aran Burr, asking Lewis to join him on the other side of the Cascades, Clark embraces the opportunity to "seek out life" rather than "wait for death" in the Sanctuary. Along with Lewis, Clark recruits her lover, her brother, an aging doctor and a young thief. Secretly they break out of the city, journeying west along the Missouri River, unsure of what they might find but convinced they must look. (I'm still grinning from their discovery in the final pages.)
Along with parallels to Lewis and Clark's real journey, Percy's story is layered with allusions to other quest narratives and his prose, like his Lewis character, displays a kind of alchemy all its own. Elegiac descriptions and poetic details morph into high-energy action scenes as the travelers battle mutants with their limited arsenal and Lewis' strange magic.
Most quests end with the travelers wondering if the journey was worth it. If you ask me, it certainly was.
Carole E. Barrowman teaches English at Alverno College in Milwaukee and blogs at www.carolebarrowman.com.
THE DEAD LANDS
By: Benjamin Percy.
Publisher: Grand Central, 400 pages, $26.
Event: Book launch, 7 p.m. April 14, the Rueb ’N Stein, Northfield; reading and signing, 7 p.m. April 30, Common Good Books, 38 S. Snelling Av., St. Paul.