A Review of
Future Home of the Living God
Hardback: HarperCollins, 2017
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Reviewed by Leslie A. Klingensmith
White liberalism. Roman Catholic theology. Native American displacement. Women’s rights. Cross cultural adoption. Government intrusion. Reproductive choice. Evolution. Science vs. Faith. Global warming. Creation spirituality. Motherhood. These are some of the issues that Louise Erdrich addresses – either explicitly or implicitly – in her latest novel Future Home of the Living God. I loved the book. Erdrich’s ability to touch on so many important topics without being self-righteous or pedantic should be the envy of all who aspire to write. She has written a story that somehow manages to be both terrifying and hopeful – and all too possible. I read the book as those of us who live within the rhythm of the church year were about to start the liturgical season of Advent. As unlikely as it might seem, this futuristic tale is eerily (and beautifully) perfect for Advent. Erdrich has created a narrative that confronts us with the hope of the Incarnation (begun with Jesus’ unlikely birth) but also the revelation that every birth, especially ones that take place against the backdrop of a world in turmoil, bears a hint of incarnation.
Future Home of the Living God has drawn comparisons to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and George Orwell’s 1984. The echoes of those important classics are present, and yet Erdrich has also created something entirely her own. Her weaving of Native American folklore, culture, and familial relationships into a dystopian narrative is genius. With her expert creation of believable characters, Erdrich draws us into the world she has created. Their struggles to maintain their humanity as the nation implodes force us to grapple with the questions of what we would do if (when?) we find ourselves in such a position.
Cedar Hawk Songmaker is a woman in her mid-20s, Native American by birth but adopted and raised by white parents. As her story begins she is in the early stages of pregnancy. She knows that her birth name is Mary Potts. She has had the name and address of her birth mother for awhile and ignored the information, but the probability of becoming a mother herself prompts her to seek out her biological family. Her sudden interest is ostensibly to inquire about any genetic traits she should be aware of – but it is also clear that she needs to understand herself, her origin, and her relationship with her adoptive parents better. From the beginning, Erdrich drops hints that all is not well in the Upper Midwest of the United States (or maybe even the whole country) initially the chaos is peripheral.
People are carrying on with their daily lives, even though strange things are happening and we are told that “evolution is reversing.” When Cedar tells her parents (Glen and Sera) that she plans to make a day trip to the reservation to meet her biological family, they are worried for her. Instability has begun to creep into society, although we are left to guess specifically what is happening. Whatever is going on is worrisome enough that Glen and Sera want Cedar to come home and be with them. For reasons she is not even fully conscious of herself, Cedar feels a sense of urgency about making the connection with her birth family and insists that she will be fine for a day of travel. The whole exchange between Cedar and her parents captures the ominous nature of what is happening, but also shows us the ordinary dramas, conversations, and minor disagreements that make up so much of life. One of the scariest things about the early parts of Cedar’s story is how quickly tremendous disorder (and even evil) can come to seem normal. Whatever is going on, Cedar is already starting to work around it, as if what is happening is merely an inconvenience.
It is not long after Cedar’s visit to the reservation that whatever fragile equilibrium has been holding society together disappears. Cedar’s own pregnancy is not visible yet, but she finds out that all pregnant women are now required to report to hospitals, where they are imprisoned, supposedly for their own health and that of their babies. Women who fail to turn themselves in are arrested. Cedar and her baby’s father go into hiding. They are unwilling to surrender their own freedom, and there are frightening rumors circulating about what happens to the women (and their babies) once they are under the care of a totalitarian government.
One of the most difficult pieces of Cedar’s story to make sense of is the enigmatic behavior of her child’s father, a young and gentle man named Phil. At first it seems obvious that he loves Cedar and their unborn child, and that he will go to any length to protect them. As the story plays out, cracks appear in his character, and we never know with certainty who he really is. Is he an agent of the state, or of the resistance? Is he deceitful, or weak? Phil’s inconsistencies strike a nerve because they show us that we never know how we would behave in situations of extreme pressure and danger. We like to think that we would be the hero of any disaster narrative, appearing at just the right time to rescue the ones in peril. We hope that we would stand up decisively against oppression and injustice, and that we would speak truth to power with clarity and conviction. Few of us are ever tested to the degree that Phil is, so it is impossible to predict how we would respond. His waffling forces us to confront the truth that courage is elusive, regardless of our intentions. Sometimes we become so much a part of the culture that we forget who we are and what we once stood for. In Phil’s character, Erdrich makes a case that we have to practice bravery, even in small situations that feel insignificant. If we do not cultivate our conviction when life is relatively stable, there is little hope that we will be steadfast when confronted by the collective power of the oppressors. Phil’s cowardice and self-serving nature become even more apparent when set alongside other characters (like Eddy, Jessie, and Tia) who sacrifice their own safety to live with integrity and push back against what is happening.
Future Home of the Living God does not have a “happy” ending, but Louise Erdrich has given us the ending we deserve. Erdrich leaves Cedar in a terrible state – but there are seeds of hope and glimmers of possibility that life can prevail. Whether you read the story as Indian folklore, a parable, allegory, science fiction, or some combination, there is an underlying sense that things can be made right (at least on a small scale) when people seek truth and resist evil. The reader senses the presence of a loving Creator even when Cedar’s plight is bleak. As long as there is a handful of people who follow the lead of that Creator, the possibility for something better exists. Will we be Phils, or Eddys? Jessies, or Orielees? Erdrich’s stunning novel forces us to ask ourselves those questions over and over again.