Dystopian novels are crowding the shelves these days, especially feminist ones, and especially those concerning reproduction and motherhood. Speaking of dystopia and motherhood, let’s not ignore the mother of them all—nor the astonishing success of its 2017 film. I’m referring, of course, to Margaret Atwood’s 1986 classic, The Handmaid’s Tale.
Louise Erdrich’s newest, FUTURE HOME OF THE LIVING GOD, can’t help but generate comparisons to that older one. It holds up beautifully, albeit with some flaws, which are perhaps more irritating than serious.
I’d forgotten how very funny Erdrich can be, so the opening of the novel was a bit of a surprise: it’s funny, in a smart, mordant way. Cedar Hawk Songmaker is the narrator’s white “Anglo” name—she is an Ojibwe Indian adopted at birth by white Minnesota liberals. Cedar, now 26, is writing to her unborn child, recounting her growing-up years with her adoptive parents, Sera and Glen Songmaker.
Cedar was treated with near reverence when young—she’s Native American! An Ojibwe! Heir to a tragic history! Privy to the nature spirits! From her earliest years, Cedar was considered a savant. Her youthful utterances, on everything from clouds and worms to cats and dogs, were quoted. It was as if she had a “hotline to nature.”
So when Cedar learns that her birth name—her true Indian name—is Mary Potts (!) and that her birth family runs an ordinary gas station (!!), she’s furious. All of her supposed glamour, the belief in her own mystique suddenly disappears. “I’d been a snowflake. Without my specialness, I melted.”
Humor aside, the world Cedar lives in faces a dire threat: evolution is reversing itself. Plant life and newly born creatures, human babies included, look more prehistoric than modern. Life is going backward, down the swimming pool ladder and—splash!—right back into the primordial soup, writes Cedar.
As if this weren’t troublesome enough for a functioning society (Where’s the beef? Do we still have beef?), it has a personal impact on Cedar. She is pregnant—and worried about the form her newborn will take. Will the baby be a modern homo sapiens or an evolutionary throwback to … what? A Neanderthal?
Terrifyingly, the old government has collapsed, and the theocratic New Constitution government is rounding up all pregnant women. For what purpose is unknown, but everyone is being watched, and everyone is watching everyone else. Now in her second trimester, Cedar has begun to show and must stay out of sight.
Despite Cedar’s self-imposed quarantine, danger is everywhere, which is how the book slips into thriller-mode with its capture-and-escape plot. Yet, as always, Erdrich’s writing achieves lyrical beauty and philosophical heft. She contemplates the beauty of all of life, of a star-lit sky, and of religion’s power to penetrate deep mysteries and to offer solace. While her characters don’t necessarily jump off the page into life—and at times lack believability—they’re nonetheless engaging and keep us reading.
The book might be taken as a cautionary tale: of what, I’m not sure: perhaps, of human arrogance in the way we treat our natural home. Maybe we get what’s coming to us? Future Home of the Living God is a funny (at times) but mostly sober and sobering tale. Actually … it’s downright scary.
A former college English instructor, Molly developed LitLovers after teaching an online literature course several years ago. It was so much fun—even the students loved it—that she decided to take it public. If Molly’s not working on LitLovers, she’s sleeping.