I’ve only ever read one other book by Louise Erdrich, The Round House and was thoroughly impressed and emotionally drained by the book. It was a beautiful telling of a terrible story and tackles some serious issues around inequality and disparity faced by Native American peoples in the US. In any case, knowing what she was able to do with that novel, and seeing that this most recent publication of hers was focused around an issue particularly close to my own heart, pregnancy and women’s rights to their own bodies, I knew that I would have to read it.
“The first thing that happens at the end of the world is that we don’t know what is happening.”
Future Home of the Living God follows Cedar Songmaker, adopted out of her Ojibwe tribe by a well-off, liberal, family from Minneapolis. When she finds out, at 26, that she is pregnant, she decides at long last (and before even telling her adoptive parents) to pay a visit to her birth mother, Mary Potts, on the reservation to find out more about her and her baby’s family history. Although this alone could make for a compelling family drama, this is not even close to the whole story. In this piece of speculative fiction, Cedar finds out that she is pregnant right at the world is facing a disastrous evolutionary event: the world is moving backwards. Scientists cannot explain or stop it, but evolution is reversing, and women everywhere are giving birth to children that appear to be more primitive versions of our species. This leads, invariably, to societal breakdown (martial law, religious zealotry, and more) and of course, crimes against the female body in the name of science and the general “good.” Starting with mandatory confinement of all pregnant women for observation and their own safety (with rewards for those who refuse to turn themselves in) and ending with rounding-up of all child-bearing-age women to be artificially inseminated with sperm bank donations saved from prior to this evolutionary reversal. Through all of this, Cedar struggles with her own self-knowledge, impending motherhood and how to keep her baby safe.
This is a fascinating premise, and one that is beautifully explored. The inevitable descent of humanity into extremity in the face of catastrophe is completely expected, but always difficult to read about. And it is so wonderfully developed here. It’s also so intriguing to me that, in this case, though the “end of the world as we know it” is terrifying, the unexplainable evolutionary reversals are serious and must be addressed and researched, the actual breakdown of society and structure is completely manmade. It’s not something fast like a meteor or other instantaneous or overnight tragedy that changes things. I mean, pregnancy is still a nine-month construct, one that happens continuously across the world, but not universally for all women (meaning that many will not be affected), so why is it necessary for such drastic measures to be taken so quickly? That reaction is entirely human and therefore the dystopian nature of the world at the time of Cedar’s pregnancy is both completely our fault and completely avoidable. What a unique and original concept! Alongside this originality is yet another take on the age old theme of women’s bodies being used against their will – though I say that in a way that makes it sound “already done,” that is not what I mean. The issues, though often explored, must needs be until they are no longer rampant. I support that and appreciated the use of the premise here. Plus, it was combined here with another, but less often seen, focus on how incarcerated bodies are used against their will “for the good of society” – violating rights on many levels in a population that has no way to defend themselves (an issue that the US has seen often throughout its history and still today). Skillfully woven in, and adding depth to the story, are plot lines around mother-daughter relationships, family dynamics in trying circumstances and across cultures, global warming/climate change and land rights of indigenous peoples.
As far as the writing itself – it was excellent. The details were exquisite throughout and the dialogue had wonderful flow, even when it was halting or interrupted, it was done so in such a real way as to make it flawless. Relatedly, I listened to this as an audiobook, which the author read herself, and it was perfectly narrated – there could not have been a better tone or inflection for the narration of this book. I highly recommend listening, if you plan to read this. The development of the plotline overall was deep and though the focus remained very internal to Cedar and her experiences throughout, enough of the outer world reached through her senses to give the reader a true feel for the circumstances of her situation(s).
I do have to be honest, there were definitely some parts I was less enamored of. A few times, things seemed to drag a little, taking longer than they needed to in moving us to the next jump of “big action,” if you will. It was a strange sort of pacing – long periods of inaction or slow action interspersed with short moments of great intensity. There were also a number of sections that go super introspective or philosophical (primarily from evolutionary and religious perspectives) and I was definitely less into that overall.
To end on a positive note: I absolutely loved the ending. It was the exact right way to end a dystopian novel like this. The hopelessness was palpable, as it should have been – no false promises or unrealistically happy/closed-ended conclusion. It just fit so well. There are points of higher hope or future possibility elsewhere throughout the novel that you can focus on and take away if need be. And I know that type of ending is not everyone’s cup of tea, and maybe that’ll dissuade some from reading the book (if so, I’m sorry), but I would have been disappointed with anything else after the build-up from the rest of the plot.
This was a unique and atmospheric read, creating a world that seemed incredibly (scarily) real and fully formed. Although I think the overall message was maybe a little too occluded, and definitely not as succinct as it could have been, many important themes were still thoroughly addressed and explored. This this is definitely not for everyone, I do think it’s a great literary contribution from a prolific and esteemed author and you can definitely feel through the writing that this is a story with great personal significance to her.