Future Home of the Living God: Good, but bleak. Really, really, bleak.

Future Home of the Living God by Louise ErdrichFuture Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich fantasy book reviewsFuture Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich

It’s winter. It’s cold. Our government is a mess. If you’re looking for a flight from reality, a pleasant escape, or a cozy book that offers comfort, do not reach for Louise Erdrich’s 2017 novel Future Home of the Living God. It’s not that book.

On the other hand, if you’ve been wondering what an update of the Margaret Atwood classic The Handmaid’s Tale might read like, or you just love Erdrich’s prose and keen eye for detail, Future Home of the Living God will not disappoint.

Like The Handmaid’s Tale, Future Home of the Living God is told in the form of a woman’s journal, in this case to her as-yet unborn child. Cedar Hawk Songmaster is twenty-six, pregnant and unmarried. Cedar was adopted by a couple she describes as “white Minnesota liberals.” Now that she is pregnant, she wants to find out whether there are genetic issues she should know about, so she is reaching out to her biological mother, Mary Potts. This seems, at first glance, like a normal concern, but conversations between Cedar and her adoptive mother, who doesn’t know Cedar is pregnant, let the reader know that something is going very wrong in the world, and going wrong even faster in the United States. Sera, Cedar’s mother, worries that martial law will be declared while Cedar is on the road to the Ojibwa reservation where the Potts family lives.

From the opening paragraphs Cedar’s voice and her character come through. She is smart, educated, rebellious, and tends to make quick judgments about people. She is embarrassed that her biological family runs a Superpumper gas station on the res. She is stubborn, ignoring her parents’ concerns. She wrestles with spirituality. From the opening pages, the book also has the signature dark humor that Erdrich is well-known for. The Potts family spring to life early on, and the book lulls us into a false sense of security, a belief (that Cedar shares) that things might be all right after all.

Louise Erdrich

We — and she — are wrong.

It is nearly impossible not to compare this book to both The Handmaid’s Tale and P.D. James’s book The Children of Men. While Atwood gave a plausible explanation for the changes in the birth rate (environmental pollution) and James hinted at a biological response to overpopulation, Erdrich takes a metaphysical approach that is never fully explained. It is literally the final three pages of the book before she connects the dots. Several characters espouse theories about what is happening, but the idea that evolution is “going sideways” never truly worked for me as a scientific premise, although it is a beautiful metaphor. It also lets Erdrich describe some strange and beautiful plants and creatures, like the smilodon that eats a dog, that begin to appear as society collapses into fascism.

Certain themes show up in all of Erdrich’s work, and they show up here. Catholicism is one, motherhood is definitely one. Cedar converted to Catholicism, and she finds that her Ojibwa family are also Catholic and very interested in creating a shrine to St. Kateri Tekawitha, the first Native American saint. St. Kateri, and Cedar’s connection to her, play a role throughout Future Home of the Living God, as Cedar reunites with her baby’s father, goes into hiding, and is ultimately imprisoned by the self-appointed authorities who are trying to control pregnant women.

Because the book is mostly about motherhood — maybe motherhood in the midst of catastrophe — much of Cedar’s musings are taken up with the baby. Will it survive? Will it be human? Will she survive? These are all valid questions and the suspense grows in weight with each page. One theory is that the genetic changes in utero create an auto-immune reaction in the mother; most babies don’t survive, and most mothers don’t survive more than one pregnancy. Imprisoned mothers never see their babies. They won’t let Cedar even see her ultrasound.

As always, Erdrich’s characters are rounded, flawed and compelling. Cedar feels like a regular person who is forced to do terrible things. Both sets of parents are well-drawn, and Erdrich makes the interesting choice to play out a smaller family drama between Cedar and Sera right alongside the wholesale catastrophe. Other characters, like the baby’s father Phil, are well depicted. Even minor characters, like the nurses, the mail carrier and the man who drives a recycling truck, are vivid and convincing.

The Catholic theme starts early and stays strong, and the book’s title works on a couple of levels. Cedar’s due date is December 25, and on her way to the reservation, she sees a sign in a vacant lot that proclaims, “Future Home of the Living God.” Cedar’s faith is a problem for Cedar, because while she prays to St. Kateri, she doesn’t get much in the way of material help from the saint. St. Kateri is a source of strength but not power in this book, and she is literally a snare. This is so well done that I went online and looked up St. Kateri and was horrified (but not surprised) to find a story of internalized colonialism. Kateri’s Algonquin family died of smallpox, a European disease, and Kateri had smallpox scars. The Catholic site I went to did not include Kateri’s name from before she changed it when she converted at age 19. Kateri left her village after refusing to marry, and joined a Native Catholic settlement run by the Jesuits. She frequently hurt herself, starved herself and “tainted her food to spoil the taste.” The site said that mortification of the flesh was common among the Algonquin (so I guess there were a lot of Algonquin monks back there in Europe). Kateri died at the age of 24. After her death, there were some healings done in her name, and she was canonized very recently. She is the saint of the environment, exiles, and Native Americans. Please don’t choke on the irony because I can’t Heimlich you from here.

This is not an aside. Erdrich clearly knows the saint’s history and uses it well in this story, on multiple levels. It’s not an accident that the saint is in charge of an environment we have exploited and plundered, an environment that, in the book, chooses ultimately to ignore us, to go its own way, with serious implications for those we call human.

I know that taking a general-fiction book to task for not have enough science in its SF premise is like ordering the chocolate mousse and complaining that there isn’t enough lemon, but I do think that Erdrich could have done better here. It is not only the handwaving for the scientific causes; I felt like she didn’t pay much attention to the mechanics of the repressive political regime. The way they treat pregnant women is believable and scary, but the relative ease with which people get in and out of the facilities bothered me. Particularly, the escape plan Cedar and her silent roommate develop exceeds surreal and leaps into the implausible. Don’t get me wrong; I loved it. I just couldn’t quite believe it.

The ending might be open-ended. It is possible to read Cedar’s final few pages as a sign of optimism. It’s also possible to see her as another victim of a toxic system, with nothing but hope, and probably false hope at that. Good luck with that first one.

Overall, I found Future Home of the Living God very bleak, but I’m glad I read it. Grim and unrelenting as it is, I was interested to watch Erdrich work out her questions and fears through the lens of a pregnant, spiritual woman. Ultimately, the narrative voice and the richness of detail carried the day.

Published in November 2017. A New York Times Notable Book of 2017. Louise Erdrich, the New York Times bestselling, National Book Award-winning author of LaRose and The Round House, paints a startling portrait of a young woman fighting for her life and her unborn child against oppressive forces that manifest in the wake of a cataclysmic event. The world as we know it is ending. Evolution has reversed itself, affecting every living creature on earth. Science cannot stop the world from running backwards, as woman after woman gives birth to infants that appear to be primitive species of humans. Twenty-six-year-old Cedar Hawk Songmaker, adopted daughter of a pair of big-hearted, open-minded Minneapolis liberals, is as disturbed and uncertain as the rest of America around her. But for Cedar, this change is profound and deeply personal. She is four months pregnant. Though she wants to tell the adoptive parents who raised her from infancy, Cedar first feels compelled to find her birth mother, Mary Potts, an Ojibwe living on the reservation, to understand both her and her baby’s origins. As Cedar goes back to her own biological beginnings, society around her begins to disintegrate, fueled by a swelling panic about the end of humanity. There are rumors of martial law, of Congress confining pregnant women. Of a registry, and rewards for those who turn these wanted women in. Flickering through the chaos are signs of increasing repression: a shaken Cedar witnesses a family wrenched apart when police violently drag a mother from her husband and child in a parking lot. The streets of her neighborhood have been renamed with Bible verses. A stranger answers the phone when she calls her adoptive parents, who have vanished without a trace. It will take all Cedar has to avoid the prying eyes of potential informants and keep her baby safe. A chilling dystopian novel both provocative and prescient, Future Home of the Living God is a startlingly original work from one of our most acclaimed writers: a moving meditation on female agency, self-determination, biology, and natural rights that speaks to the troubling changes of our time.

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Marion Deeds, with us since March, 2011, is the author of the fantasy novella ALUMINUM LEAVES. Her short fiction has appeared in the anthologies BEYOND THE STARS, THE WAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE, STRANGE CALIFORNIA, and in Podcastle, The Noyo River Review, Daily Science Fiction and Flash Fiction Online. She’s retired from 35 years in county government, and spends some of her free time volunteering at a second-hand bookstore in her home town. You can read her blog at deedsandwords.com, and follow her on Twitter: @mariond_d.

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4 comments

  1. I’ve heard so many good things about this book — and your review is excellent — but I’m just not in the mood for bleak right now. I might wait to pick it up at the library this summer.

  2. While able to recognize Erdich’s obvious writing talent, the stories just haven’t done much for me in the past, and while I appreciate the detailed and thoughtful review, it’s mostly confirming m inclination to let this one slide, despite your praise

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