Future Home of the Living God
by louise erdrich
harpercollins, 288 pages, $28.99
Never trust the teller, trust the tale,” D. H. Lawrence famously declared. Keep that in mind when it comes to Louise Erdrich and her new novel, Future Home of the Living God. In an interview about her latest work, she let readers know that “When I was accepting the Library of Congress Prize, I think I thanked Planned Parenthood first of all.” Not even the most committed pro-choice feminist needs to make her bona fides this clear when discussing a new book, never mind a writer with strong progressive credentials who’s already published some thirty books to all sorts of critical and popular acclaim.
This is a case of a writer worried—and rightly so—that her evocation of a mother’s relationship to her unborn child, which takes the form in this case of a novel-length letter from one to the other, will confront us with the irreducible reality of two human lives. The mother is twenty-six-year-old Cedar Hawk Songmaker, the self-described “adopted child of Minneapolis liberals” whose Ojibwe parentage affords her all sorts of easy fame in her cosseted upbringing: “I was the star of my Waldorf grade school. . . . My observations on birds, bugs, worms, clouds, cats and dogs, were quoted. I supposedly had a hotline to nature.” Cedar’s sarcastic voice is bold, assured, and very funny.
The novel is more than merely provocative and entertaining, because Erdrich brings serious religious and political concerns to bear upon her heroine’s life. Cedar rebels from the NPR world of her adoptive parents by converting to Catholicism, which in turn strengthens her ties to her Native American family, opens up a flourishing intellectual life (she edits a theological journal called Zeal), and fosters a particular devotion to St. Kateri Tekakwitha, the seventeenth-century “Lily of the Mohawks.” Cedar’s faith becomes a source of strength as she reckons with having to live in “a perilous time in the history of creation,” a premise that Erdrich develops by introducing assorted dystopic features to the novel. Extreme weather, failing technology, food scarcity, economic crisis, civil strife, and a combination of unexplained genetic mutation and widespread infertility have led to the rise of an authoritarian, theocratic government in the United States. At the start of the story, the government has declared pregnancy itself a national security issue, because very few women are having babies these days and also because those rare babies that are born have features that suggest a devolution of the human race. In response to this situation, the government seeks to capture, monitor, and control all pregnant women.
Four months pregnant, Cedar goes into hiding. She sees a pregnant woman being arrested in a grocery store parking lot. In a brilliant and wrenching sequence, the stunned woman is taken away while her raging husband is held down and her young daughter watches. Soon enough, Cedar suffers a similar fate. She finds herself drugged and confined to a bed in a hospital full of pregnant women, each of whom quietly disappears after giving birth to children that become wards of the state and research subjects. Closely monitored by steely, smiling nurses and occasionally visited by would-be allies and rescuers, Cedar and her roommate stop taking their meds and plot an escape, the workings of which shift the novel into flat-out suspense that carries through to the novel’s culminating event: the arrival of Cedar’s baby.
We learn all of this through Cedar’s letter to this child. Erdrich makes much of this opportunity to reveal the intense wonder of pregnancy itself, as when Cedar reflects on seeing her child during an ultrasound:
At first there is only the gray uterine blur, and then suddenly the screen goes charcoal and out of the murk your hand wavers. It is detailed, three-dimensional, and I glimpse tiny wrinkles in your palm and wrinkle bracelets around your wrist before your hand disappears into the screen’s fuzz. There is something about your hand, just a feeling, and I am upset for a moment. Just a hand—but a sense of clarity and power. I want to get off the table. I want to say Enough, no more, but at the same time I want to see you again. The way you waved, just that second, and disappeared—I am so overcome that I can hardly breathe.
Later in the novel, overcome now by the prospect of losing the child to the state, Cedar turns to God in hopes of finding clarity and comfort. She prays to St. Kateri and to the Virgin Mary (Cedar’s due date is December 25). As rumors circulate that newborns during this period of “massive biological reversal” will have Neanderthal features, Cedar decides that she will treasure hers come what may:
The children born during this present time will be possessed of souls whether or not they are capable of speech, and should be considered fully human no matter what scientists may conclude about their capacity to think and learn. I mean, I still don’t know what’s going on—but had to throw that in.
In many respects, Erdrich’s novel recalls books like P. D. James’s The Children of Men, Ma Jian’s The Dark Road, and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. But Erdrich’s politics aren’t nearly as clear as those authors’. Likewise, her narrative isn’t as fully elaborated or internally coherent. That said, the seriousness with which Erdrich takes Cedar’s religious longings and commitments—which also include a funny and moving and finally mystical encounter at a shrine to St. Kateri—distinguishes this novel from the assorted dystopias you can find in bookstores today. Cedar is an idiosyncratic and serious Christian hopeful about the future. She’s living for more than herself: “Dear baby, I want you to see this world, supernal, lovely.”
Randy Boyagoda is a principal of St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto.