Warning: this review contains minor spoilers.
I’m currently engaged in a crazy project to read and review most of Louise Erdrich’s books in order of publication, and so today I should be blogging about her 1986 novel The Beet Queen. She just published a new book however, and I can’t be expected to follow a reading list when there’s a brand new Louise Erdrich novel in existence. Below are my thoughts on Future Home of the Living God, published today in the US.
Future Home of the Living God tells the story of Cedar Hawk Songmaker, a young Ojibwe woman raised by white parents. When she finds out she is pregnant, she decides to meet her birth mother. Meanwhile, the world around her begins to collapse. Evolution seems to be going backwards, with women giving birth to more primitive species of humans, and fauna and flora also regressing. Soon, the authorities round up pregnant women and take their babies away. With the help of her two families, Cedar has no choice but to hide to save herself and her unborn child.
So, Louise Erdrich has written a piece of speculative fiction. It’s not as big a change for her as you would think, since her signature themes and concerns endure alongside the new ones. Her focus on womanhood, most notably, is stronger than ever (one day I’ll write a review of a Louise Erdrich book without mentioning the women, I swear). She even goes further than usual: if women are always the centre of her stories, here she creates a story where they can be the centre of the world. She drops her customary chorus of narrative voices, and makes the book Cedar’s diary. This individual focus might seem surprising for a book whose subject is the fate of humanity, but to me the dissonance is a feminist statement. What’s more crucial to humanity than a pregnant woman? What can be more akin to the Creator? The book doesn’t just honour biological motherhood, however. It’s Cedar’s adoptive mother, Sera, who’s the real superhero: if she can’t have the babies she can deliver them, which makes her something close to a mage within the story. If that wasn’t enough, she joins the resistance and infiltrates enemy ranks to save her daughter. She is the general we follow and rely on, and Cedar is the private who fights for her life. I’m thinking of the trope of the soldier deployed far from home, looking at a picture of his wife, or reading her letters, to give himself the strength to go on. In this case it’s Cedar who’s abroad, and it’s her stepfather’s writing that spurs her forward. Men can be allies in this book, but they remain in the background. It’s a satisfying reversal.
Thematically, Future Home is very ambitious and covers a lot of ground. Based on the synopsis, I expected the story to deal with reproductive rights, but it turns out it deals just as much with climate change. These two main themes then fuse together in a discussion of nature and humanity, with religion, science and politics coming to flesh it out. I could elaborate on any of these topics, but the one that really stood out to me was religion. Catholicism is omnipresent in Erdrich’s work, but at the same time it is always put to the test. Future Home, given its subject matter, is an opportunity to expand on this mitigated approach. Cedar is a devout Catholic, and edits a religious magazine. As she writes her articles, she delves into theological thought, quotes monks, credits saints. At the end of the day however, she has no choice but to conclude that her saint of choice, Kateri Tekakwitha, has abandoned her, along with the Virgin Mary. She starts questioning the idea of God. In other words, Erdrich shows respect for faith and theological reflection, but refuses religion as salvation, especially in the face of science. I don’t think it’s a ground-breaking concept, but it’s nuanced enough to be highlighted. If there’s one thing that’s often missing from conversations about religion, it’s nuance.
And yet, despite all of Future Home‘s qualities, I can’t say that I enjoyed reading it. It pulled my mind into a greyish hopeless space that’s incidentally the same colour as the cover. Erdrich’s novels usually retain hope no matter the circumstances, but here it only trickles through, and is pretty much dry by the end. The last paragraphs especially left me with a sense of impending doom I didn’t care for at all. All the way through, the overwhelming emotion is not anger or indignation; it’s a sort of dark resignation. Add to this the claustrophobic settings and the metaphysical questions with which the book concerns itself, and reading Future Home was like revisiting my own depressed mind. Erdrich might have meant to evoke depression, since she includes a character, Eddy, who suffers from it, and whose writing on suicide is quoted at length. Perhaps his redemption – he recovers when he takes an active role in protecting his people- is the hope I’m meant to see. Doesn’t make the book any less heavy though.
Please don’t let my reaction dissuade you from reading it, however. If anything, my feelings are testimony to Erdrich’s skill, and there is a lot to praise about Future Home. It is incredibly rich, with just the right amount of tension and paranoia to make you turn the page. You just have to be in the right frame of mind to read it.
If you’re reading this and you’re in the US, go get yourself a signed copy from Birchbark Books right now, it’s an order. If you’re in the UK, I’m afraid you’ll have to wait until 4th January 2018 for the book to be available, but you can already pre-order it. Many thanks to Corsair for my proof copy!