Nov. 8, 2016 was a terrifying day for many people. It affirmed a narrative that had long been silent in American politics. Many people did not know what to do with themselves. Some cried, some yelled, some donated to charities. Louise Erdrich went digging. She was looking for a manuscript she had written in 2002, at the beginning of the war in Iraq and the Bush Jr. presidency.
After converting it from its floppy disk form, Erdrich returned to her unfinished novel, “Future Home of the Living God,” which will be published this Friday. In it, she grapples with a world in which choice is not up for debate — one in which women’s bodies are considered government wombs.
The novel follows Cedar Hawk Songmaker, a Native American woman born to an Ojibwe mother but adopted by a wealthy, liberal, white couple in Minneapolis. Longing for a concrete identity, she ventures to her birth mother’s reservation, where she discovers that her birth name is actually Mary Potts. Despite this wonderful cultural irony, we quickly transition to the main narrative — a terrifyingly present dystopian tale.
Suddenly, readers are thrust into a world where “evolution is reversing” and the government rewrites the Patriot Act to exercise extreme control over child-bearing women. Not unlike Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” the novel explores the devolution of a government into a religiously regimented society and its effect on female agency.
Written as a harrowing journal that Cedar is keeping for her unborn child, the novel is half a thrilling narrative, half a spiritual reflection on the self. As the increasingly fascist government begins to round up all pregnant women, Cedar, bearing an unlikely healthy baby boy, finds herself on the run.
Because of the progressing situation and Cedar’s forced isolation, the narrative closes itself off, leaving the details of the devolving government murky. Because Cedar is off the grid during the government fallout, she is not exactly sure what is happening, and thus neither is the reader. Details of the reversal of evolution, social restructuring and medical anomalies are vague and often glossed over. While confusing at times, this structure ties us to Cedar and allows us to focus on her narrative more intimately. We wonder what she wonders; we fear what she fears.
Cedar evades capture and turns to her child’s father, her adoptive mother and eventually her birth family, finally taking refuge on their reservation. Here, we return to Erdrich’s wheelhouse. Ojibwe herself, Erdrich has become known for her contemplative, resonant reflections on Native lives. Despite the constraints of the thrilling plot, Erdrich seamlessly weaves together Native spirituality, Cedar’s Christian upbringing and the religious foundations of the fascist government. When the government closes in, Cedar looks for truth in family and friends, ultimately only finding it in herself and her faith.
As in many of her recent works, Erdrich’s characters are less people themselves and more vehicles by which to introduce relevant discussions of self-determination, identity and the strength to carry on. One of the most interesting characters in the novel is Cedar’s step-birth-father, Eddy, a man who writes daily journal entries about the reasons he did not kill himself that day, so as to cope with his depression. Cedar’s developing relationship with him provides poignant discussions and realizations of conflicting spiritualities, delving into a narrative of what it means to be alive and stay alive.
Though it easily slips into the same vein as feminist dystopian thrillers, Erdrich provides a unique lens through which to examine the genre. “Future Home of the Living God” is a stunningly beautiful — and painfully relevant — artistic novel. A cautionary tale for our turbulent time.
Rebecca Gerny covers literature. Contact her at [email protected].