REVIEW: Louise Erdrich’s “‘Future Home of the Living God’
Louise Erdrich’s motivation for writing her reproductive dystopia, Future Home of the Living God, is quite clear, particularly in a “political mess” that includes the Speaker of the House’s recent directive to the women of America to have more babies. Erdrich’s above quote about her new novel comes from her conversation with Margaret Atwood, author of the ubiquitous novel, The Handmaid’s Tale. Though both novels fit into the increasingly popular genre of reproductive dystopia, Erdrich’s new novel takes a markedly different tone than Atwood’s 1985 classic.
Future Home of the Living God is Erdrich’s sixteenth novel, her follow-up to last year’s LaRose, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award in fiction. Future Home is a bit of a departure for Erdrich; her most critically acclaimed novels, The Round House (2012) and The Plague of Doves (2008), are works of crime fiction that focus on sexual politics and family life on an Ojibwe reservation in North Dakota. Sexual politics and family life remain focuses for Erdrich in Future Home, but she seems reluctant to fully explore what these threads mean in the specific context of a dystopia. Future Home follows Cedar Hawk Songmaker, an Ojibwe woman born Mary Potts and adopted at birth by white Twin Cities liberals who fashion their daughter into their progressive community’s Indian princess. The novel is Cedar’s diary, addressed to her unborn child from her fourth month of pregnancy on.
The novel begins with Cedar establishing the context that inspired her to write through her pregnancy: a biological crisis confounds the country with unclear ramifications for reproduction and evolution, though the explanation on which Cedar relies is that nature is “moving backwards.” Cedar also reveals in the first rush of scene-setting the fact of her previous abortion, and her immediate understanding, before learning of the biological crisis, that she would follow through with her current pregnancy – “This time the dipstick test filled me with yes.” Erdrich’s novel is intentionally vague in places to point to the limits of Cedar’s knowledge and the climate of uncertainty that accompanies the apocalypse-like atmosphere of this backward evolution. Erdrich is more clear in establishing the Christian militant organizations that claim power in the wake of the evolutionary change than the evolutionary change itself – an ominous voice that calls itself “Mother” watches Cedar from her laptop, street names are replaced with verses of the Bible, and women are encouraged to become Womb Volunteers in a desperate attempt for the human race to circumvent whatever nature has in store. But Erdrich’s choice to keep her characters in the dark about the particulars of her dystopia is frustrating to both characters and this reader. Cedar’s diary records sightings of over-large animals, electricity outages, and rumors of human babies born larger than normal but who seem unable to develop speech. Yet these details are never fully connected and seem cobbled together, a hodge-podge of disaster scenarios.
The dystopia is half-baked, a necessary backdrop that allows Erdrich to play out a horror story of extreme reproductive oppression. Without the dystopia, there would be no impetus for Cedar to be taken to a prison-turned-hospital for pregnant women, a setting in which Erdrich can fully condemn the systems and organizations in power that reduce women to their wombs. In these prisons, through Cedar’s eyes, we see the horror of what a society single-mindedly obsessed with reproduction can accomplish. Similarly, Erdrich seems to include the fact of Cedar’s past abortion as if to check off a box, to acknowledge that once there was the possibility of choice in a time before the novel’s present mess, but also to excuse Cedar’s almost religious valorization and protection of her current pregnancy as something sacred, an Incarnation of sorts. Erdrich’s reliance on ambiguity protects her plot holes – we as readers cannot question that which is unclear to even the characters in the novel. This is the failsafe of Erdrich’s novel – this uncertainty and intentional reliance on vagueness makes it difficult for characters to understand what’s going on and to organize themselves in protest, and difficult for readers to form a critique as we grasp for details that don’t exist.
Though Erdrich frames her novel as a reproductive dystopia, the novel offers no new insight to our current political mess. Cedar leans on her Catholic faith for comfort throughout her time in hiding, as a captive in a prison-turned-hospital, and once on the run again. Erdrich’s inclusion of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha – the mythologized “Lily of the Mohawk,” believed to be the first Native American recognized as a Catholic saint – held promise as a thread throughout the novel, as a possible point of comparison for Cedar’s personal faith as a captive in a Christian prison-hospital, but St. Kateri does not add much besides a plot device. Cedar finds comfort in St. Kateri, but Erdrich misses an opportunity to use Cedar’s faith to explore the Catholic church’s oppressive views on contraception and abortion, and those Catholics who find a way to honor their faith while organizing for reproductive justice.
Erdrich also misses an opportunity to explore racial dynamics within her examination of dystopian reproductive oppression. Reproductive rights in America historically protect the ability of white women to reproduce, while limiting the reproduction of all other women, but Erdrich never fully explores the connection between Cedar’s birth mother’s decision to give her up for adoption and Cedar’s determination to have her child on her own terms, much less the larger scope of reproductive politics. The racial politics of compulsory reproduction in Erdrich’s dystopia are hinted at, but never fully explored, as a militant organization recruiting Womb Volunteers boasts over radio broadcast that “We took the leftovers. The embryos not labeled Caucasian. We’re going to have them and keep them all. We’re not killing any. All are sacred.” Erdrich offers moments like these, which suggest a complicated dynamic of reproduction based partly in dystopian evolutionary changes and partly in the humans’ reaction to these changes, but she never returns to many of these promising threads. Instead of assigning blame or elucidating responsibility for the novel’s (and our own world’s) reproductive injustices, the novel offers resignation, particularly on Cedar’s part, as she does not so much act but allow herself to be shuttled from place to place, captor to custodian. Further, while there is much blame to be apportioned in the novel for the biological collapse – just as there is ample blame to be spread for our current crises – Erdrich chooses to rely on ambiguity in regards to the natural world’s evolution, as Cedar and her family tend towards blaming humans for their callous reaction to the natural world’s changes, instead of looking to causes for the backwards evolution itself.
Reproductive rights in America historically protect the ability of white women to reproduce, while limiting the reproduction of all other women. Cedar parallels The Handmaid’s Tale’s Offred in that both characters record their ordeals within newly-formed oppressive environments in first-person accounts, comparing their current situations to a familiar before. What is so powerful about Atwood’s novel is the eerie familiarity of Gilead, and how clearly readers could (and can) see their own governments adopting details of the fictional dystopia in real policy. Atwood’s novel seems to take our reality and turn the radio dial just a smidge, so we recognize the transmission, but the details are unimaginable. Though we never learn Offred’s name, we have a clear sense of her person and opposition to Gilead’s regime. Erdrich paints a vivid picture of Cedar, and her diary is a confessional overflowing with information about the details of her personal life and her complicated family dynamic. But Cedar’s diary is unfocused, at times dwelling on her mixed emotions for her adoptive mother, at times drafting editorials for Zeal, the magazine she edits, and always returning to mark the progress of her unborn child’s development. Ironically, my disappointment with the novel’s fogginess is resonant with my disappointment in our current political moment. There is the intention of resistance – clearly, Erdrich recognizes and is horrified by the threat of attacks on reproductive justice, and Cedar’s attempts to escape and hide are acts of resistance – but the resistance itself, what is actualized, is off, somehow articulated in a way that does equal parts harm and good. While other characters’ descriptions are often vivid and dimensional, Cedar herself remains static, her faith in her pregnancy the only remarkable thing about her.
In the end, Cedar’s fate seems anticlimactically inevitable. By the close of the novel, I had grown uncomfortably troubled by the fact of Cedar’s diary for her unborn child more so than her actual fate, given that her reasoning and values mirror those of anti-choice politicians who threaten our rights to control our bodies in the present – “This is the Incarnation. The spirit gives flesh meaning. We’re only meat bundles, otherwise.” That Erdrich’s novel – ostensibly written in opposition to current political and cultural attacks on women’s reproductive justice – skirts the line of biology as destiny so closely speaks to a troubling problem in the novel, of something lost in translation, muddled in Erdrich’s rhetoric of special children and destined futures. Future Home of the Living God is one of many cautionary tales warning against state control of women’s bodies for breeding, but ultimately, Erdrich relies too much on unfocused description and the rhetoric of biology as destiny for the novel to be of much use to our current resistance.
Despite her novel’s disappointments, I cannot – as a reader and a fan of her previous work – blame Erdrich for attempting to use her considerable talents to write in defense of women’s control of their bodies, even though her attempt to do so from the perspective of a woman who so wants to become a mother is fraught with chilling similarities to anti-choice rhetoric. If we only focus on blame for the novel’s stumbles, then we fail to see the good in the fact of Erdrich’s attempt to write against the current threats to reproductive justice. That reproductive dystopias remain popular, from Atwood’s 1985 novel to its 2017 Netflix adaptation, to Erdrich’s newest offering, suggests that writers, readers, and audiences remain troubled by the persistent attacks on reproductive justice. Resistance to such attacks is worth sitting with, thinking over, and, finally, acting on.