Future Home of the Living God: A Novel
- By Louise Erdrich
- 288 pp.
- Reviewed by Bob Duffy
- November 30, 2017
A dystopian (yet moving) meditation on motherhood and politics
In this outstanding novel, Louise Erdrich’s 16th, we meet Cedar Hawk Songmaker, adopted daughter of well-meaning white Minneapolis liberals. Cedar’s birth ancestry is American Indian. Even so, we discover, her adoptive Anglo last name is historically authentic, originating from the medieval English habit of connecting surnames to occupations.
As for the first name Glen and Sera Songmaker have assigned their adopted child…well, we’re left to conclude that it’s a hippie-flavored affectation.
Compounding the irony, Cedar’s birth mother, an Ojibwe woman living on a nearby reservation, bears the name Mary Potts. This not-so-subtle trope is the first of many ironic touches in this brilliant book, which skillfully embeds thriller-style plot drivers in a resonant meditation on culture, politics, identity, and motherhood.
Erdrich’s tale is speculative fiction and a grippingly credible saga — in part due, perhaps, to the nagging unease some feel in the current political environment. The novel takes place in a present-day dystopia where tiny drones and listening devices the size of dust motes sweep the land in search of dissidents.
Erdrich invents a spot-on setting for all the twisty, screenplay-bait conventions of the popular thriller, with disguise, betrayals, middle-of-the-night escapes, underground hideouts, and even the occasional homicide driving the pace of the story.
Twenty-six-year-old Cedar is the pregnant narrator in the novel, and its text is a first-person journal she creates for her unborn child. In Cedar’s Minnesota, evolution seems to have reversed itself. We glimpse only hints of these dawning reversals in the natural world: crops are stunted and mutated; fast-growing vines infiltrate interior spaces; a dragonfly with a three-foot wingspan hovers outside a window; a saber-toothed tiger pounces on a wolf in Cedar’s suburban back yard.
At first, the government’s response to these environmental portents is nowhere in evidence, and civic order slowly devolves in phase with the natural world. Then the authorities begin rounding up pregnant women like Cedar. Despite admirably resourceful measures to avoid capture, she is betrayed and, in her fifth month, sent to a government hospital/prison to await delivery. No one can, or will, explain why.
With the aid of a bold underground operative she knows well, Cedar escapes to the sprawling Ojibwe reservation, where she has recently reestablished ties with her birth clan. The reservation is now a seemingly autonomous statelet and, for the moment, beyond the central government’s reach.
Female characters anchor the story Cedar sets down. There’s Sera, her reserved adoptive mother, who embodies loving devotion in her unflinchingly stoic heroism. There’s Cedar’s birth mother, known to the tribe as “Sweetie,” a model of serene, nurturing understanding, devotee of Saint Kateri Tekawithi, native icon in her Catholic culture. And there’s her half-sister, “Little Mary,” a sullen teenager whose slovenly habits inadvertently save Cedar from recapture.
Among the men, Eddy, Sweetie’s husband — small businessman, intellectual, and tribal leader — is most memorable. Although a few other men of action come and go in the story, like true heroes of the Resistance, Eddy is a steadfast mainstay in the underground culture, arranging Cedar’s escape from the reservation when establishment forces get too close.
But other male characters seem like adjuncts. White father Glen Songmaker, wise and affectionate, fades from the narrative midway through, although he’s often alluded to as an active insurgent. Phil, the father of Cedar’s baby, flaunts his own badge of courage — as well as his flaws — as he disappears and returns and disappears again.
Ultimately, true to the downbeat endings of many dystopian tales, Cedar is betrayed and recaptured. But what happens next is both abrupt and ambiguous. This is how Future Home of the Living God closes.
The reader puzzling over the loose ends that Erdrich leaves behind might be forgiven for wishing for, even expecting, a sequel. But sometimes that’s just the way it is with dystopian fiction. We may hope for but never get more Cedar — part native, part WASP, part throwback Catholic — as she faces her tomorrows in a world where even the thought of tomorrow is unbearable and repulsive.
Bob Duffy is a Maryland writer and consultant in branding and advertising.