In Future Home of the Living God, author Louise Erdrich manifests modern women’s deepest fears.
Set in an unspecified year (that could, realistically, not be too far off from the present day), Erdrich’s new novel opens on Cedar Hawk Songmaker, a 26-year-old Ojibwe woman who is four months pregnant. She is writing letters to her unborn child because she is living in “historic times” and wants to document her experience for her offspring.
Cedar lives in south Minneapolis, where the political climate is quickly deteriorating. A new government, called the Church of the New Constitution, is taking hold. There are news blackouts and food shortages. The banks are running out of cash. Streets and parks are renamed based on Bible verses. Winter is a “ghost season.” Most people have buried their cell phones because the location feature can no longer be disabled. Mail is the only reliable form of long-distance communication. Some seek shelter in tunnels to avoid drone strikes.
The most relevant cultural change to Cedar is that pregnant women are being rounded up and held hostage. It is a crime to harbor a pregnant woman. Rumors spread about prisoners being euthanized to free up space for “female gravid detention” and “womb volunteers” willing to be inseminated with donor sperm.
Despite this danger, Cedar has other concerns; she’s on an identity quest. Cedar was raised by adoptive parents – a white, liberal, vegan couple in Minneapolis. After receiving a letter from her birth mother, nicknamed Sweetie, Cedar heads up to northern Minnesota to an unnamed reservation to meet her. There, Cedar befriends her grandmother, half-sister, Sweetie, and Sweetie’s husband Eddy, a man writing an “endless memoir” cataloging all the reasons he hasn’t killed himself yet (it’s a much funnier premise than it sounds). Though Sweetie won’t divulge the identity of Cedar’s father, the truth eventually comes to light and shatters Cedar’s understanding of her family.
Despite the caring nature of her birth family, Cedar doesn’t stay on the rez; she returns to her home in south Minneapolis, where her baby daddy, Phil, joins her. Sequestered in her home so as not to arouse suspicion about her pregnant status, Cedar continues to write her thoughts to her unborn baby, work on her Catholic magazine Zeal, and hoard canned goods, ammunition, and booze in her house to be traded if necessary.
Throughout the novel, Erdrich name-drops Twin Cities institutions (Waldorf) and touchstones (the Land O’ Lakes Butter Maiden) but doesn’t linger on them. Cedar mentions seeing a bridge to the University of Minnesota from a window and Wayzata and Lake Minnetonka are mentioned as well. Erdrich strangely names chains like Subway, Perkins, and Wells Fargo but leaves other locations, like a cereal company and a mall vague. The most specific the author gets about local landmarks is, oddly, when she writes about the Minneapolis Post Office, which she describes in excruciating (and, arguably, unnecessary) detail.
Despite the urban setting, much of the book happens inside Cedar’s head as she feels ever more imprisoned by growing belly and claustrophobic within whatever four walls surround her. Save for a gruesome scene in a cave, what little action that does occur happens in parking lots or in confinement.
Erdrich’s writing here is certainly darker and more disturbing than her previous novels, but she isn’t entirely breaking new ground. Future Home of the Living God could be interpreted as a watered-down, Midwestern version of The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. In both books, moral ambiguity abounds – women oppress, torture, and even kill other women. But in Atwood’s novel, socio-economic classes were clearly demarcated, characters spoke in a cult-like dialect and wore identifying clothing, and the misogynistic culture was richly defined. Some of Atwood’s passages were so brutal they were near unbearable; others were so concentrated they required multiple reads. Erdrich’s novel is a lightweight in comparison.
What made The Handmaid’s Tale revolutionary was Atwood’s foresight. It was published in 1985, and now, over 30 years later, we find ourselves in a world that could easily devolve into what she imagined. Erdrich’s themes of global warming and elimination of reproductive freedom are not exactly prophetic; they’re entirely plausible given the political and environmental climate we live in now. Where Atwood’s dystopian world was terrifying, Erdrich’s apocalyptic one is creepy.
That said, Future Home of the Living God is an addictive read. It is a sick and twisted pleasure, one with a feverish, propulsive plot. It is humorous, harrowing, and heartbreaking all at once.
“We are so brief,” Cedar writes to her unborn child. “A one-day dandelion. A seedpod skittering across the ice. We are a feather falling from the wing of a bird. I don’t know why it is given to us to be so mortal and to feel so much. It is a cruel trick, and glorious.”