Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich
Harper, 2017; 269 pp
Reviewed by Sarah J. Schlosser
In case you haven’t noticed, dystopian literature and adaptations of the literature are all the rage now: Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Orwell’s 1984, Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and, on a recent note, Louise Erdrich’s Future Home of the Living God. With a slight nod to climate change, Erdrich tells the story of the adopted Native American daughter of a liberal white couple in Minnesota who goes on a quest to examine her “birth” past in order to preserve the future of her unborn child . Once she meets her “birth” family she also learns more about her Native American ancestry and the true story of her “adoption”. While she chips away at the secrets of her ancestry, Cedar (aka, birth name of Mary) also has to fight to keep her baby; in the event of unexplained phenomena of a strange kind of backward evolution in the world, the government is taking women who are pregnant and doing experiments on their bodies, babies, and behaviors, as well as taking women to impregnate them with synthetic substitutes of future generations. While I had hoped that the book would be more about climate change than it was, and while I tend not to pick up dystopian literature out of a need to escape bad news and not get lost in meaning over the art of a novel, the questions posed by Erdrich through Mary, her birth mother Sweetie, and her adoptive mother Sera lent the book the intrigue it needed for hope in a gray world.
These questions weren’t raised outright, which pushes the genre of dystopian literature in any novel in a more sluggish progression in my reading, but if the reader can stay with the novel past the introspective musings of Cedar when she is in hiding in her apartment (the character has nothing but time and we, the reader, are made well aware of it during this period of the book) then the reader is rewarded with plot developments that prompt more contemplation than all of the questions posed during Cedar’s seclusion. Cedar is eventually captured, but all is not lost, and Cedar and her hospital room neighbor whom Cedar calls “Spider Nun” don’t have conversations but hold some of the best communication of the book. At one point during her captive stay, Cedar considers the following in terms of defining evolution on a personal basis:
Evolution starts: a miracle. Evolution stops: a miracle. Life follows the pattern of the vastness all around us. The universe is expanding and contracting in timeless time. The earth 4.5 billion years old, the sun due t supernova and swallow us. And then contract again. Well, that’s what I think, and I am obviously only a lay observer of the great mystery, the simple why, which no scientist can answer any better than me.
As the story progresses, Cedar herself passes in and out of her own expansions and contractions, both in terms of the central, unspoken character in the novel of pregnancy in a time of global strife and in her retention of hope. We see her move in and out of apathy, love, devotion to one family and then the other, devotion to the baby’s father in spite of the risk of seeing him, and devotion to her baby both before and after it is born. Erdrich shows us a character not always as strong as she needs to be, and therefore not always as careful as she needs to be, and in showing these weaknesses and strengths she makes Cedar human enough to demonstrate a universal quest, instead of a superhero fallen or taken down by a dystopian world.