Book: Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich (2017)
Age/Genre: Dystopian Fiction
Preferred Reading Environment:This is definitely a bathtub read
Reading Accoutrements: Fresh food, in preparation for after the economy breaks down when you have to live off of hoarded non-perishables.
Content Notes: Miscarriage, Forced Hospitalization, Suicidal Thoughts
I have a feeling you’ll be seeing a lot of reviews of dystopian books from me in the coming months, because every time I read one, I find others I want to read. I saw Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich on this list of Uncomfortably Plausible Books about Dystopian America and knew immediately I wanted to read it (and Red Clocks, and pretty much every book on this list I haven’t already read). A few weeks later, I saw the book on a shelf in a thrift store and I had to buy it immediately.
I was compelled not only because this is a “reproductive dystopia” meaning it deals with rights revolving around pregnancy and bodily autonomy, but also because I’ve read Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich and really enjoyed it.
Future Home of the Living God opens with Cedar Hawk Songmaker explaining to her unborn fetus that she is pregnant with it, that evolution is moving backwards somehow and she’s afraid society will unravel, and that she was adopted, but her pregnancy makes her want to know her biological family. The entire book is written as a diary/letter to Cedar’s future child. It follows her visit to the Ojibwe reservation where her biological family lives and the gradual decline of society as her pregnancy progresses.
This book deals with a TON of issues. Cedar’s plight contains multitudes. Here’s a short, non-exhaustive list of some of the things that make her life difficult:
- She is pregnant in a time when pregnant women are being locked up “for their own good.”
- She is adopted and struggles with the idea of who she truly is.
- She is part Native American (specifically Ojibwe) in a dominantly white society.
- She is a woman in a time when all women have come under suspicion.
- Her relationship with her child’s father is undefined.
All this in a society that is falling apart due to panic and authoritarianism. This is a scary read that made me exhausted just thinking about how tired Cedar had to be throughout the whole ordeal.
Like I alluded to before, evolution has somehow stopped, or reversed, and all life on Earth is seemingly affected. Plants and animals are mutating at rapid rates and childbirth has become extremely difficult, resulting in lots of deaths of both babies and mothers. There’s the possibility that genetic mutations are present in babies who do survive. Scientists and doctors don’t know what is going on, and the public knows even less. Because of all the secrecy, it’s hard to know if the deaths are due to the genetic changes or if doctors are killing mothers who are uncooperative, or a combination of the two. Specific details are hard to come by – we only know what Cedar knows, and she only knows what she can find out from the rumor mill.
You might be wondering from the title if this book is religious or uses religious themes. Catholicism is a major plot device, with Cedar trying to process what is happening through a religious lens. I didn’t see the religious points as being preachy or trying to promote a specific viewpoint. I was a little nervous about the combination of religion and the “talking to the unborn” aspect of the story, but this book is decidedly pro-choice and bodily autonomy. I think Erdrich avoided most “She talks to it! See!? A fetus is a life!”-type arguments by starting the story (and therefore Cedar’s personification of the being inside her) when Cedar is 4 months pregnant, the fetus is well into development, and theoretically able to survive outside the womb. Thinking back, that might be part of why Cedar starts her account when she does, because that’s when she sees the baby as a living entity.
Society’s decline is happening alongside Cedar’s pregnancy. She is uncertain about the future, but basically just does her best to survive. She clears out her bank accounts and stocks up on booze, cigarettes, and ammunition, with the idea that they’ll be better currency than money if shit really does hit the fan. I love that she buys her supplies on a credit card, hedging that credit card companies might not survive the collapse. She hides her stock in the walls, painting over them so that nothing is obvious to the casual observer. One aspect of the book I really enjoyed was that Cedar was smart in a ton of ways, but she still made mistakes. Being prepared only gets you so far in an end-of-the-world scenario, and not all of her preparations pay off, even though it was smart to make them. In this way, the book is both hopeful and bleak.
Over the months, things get more and more dangerous. People are encouraged to turn pregnant women in, supposedly so they can be safe. Hospitals and other medical facilities are dedicated to housing pregnant women. The description of the hospital we see reminds me of the 1960s mental institutions I’ve recently read about – some roaming is allowed, but people are highly monitored, and there’s no doubt that they’re prisoners. The jails are also cleared out (it’s strongly implied that the prisoners were killed or forced to work for the government) in order to house more pregnant women. Eventually, women are captured for minor infractions and forcefully inseminated (in the name of research, of course).
I thought Future Home of the Living God did a great job of showing how quickly yet gradually society can slide into chaos. Nothing happens overnight, but people accept the small changes as they come, and eventually, women can’t safely walk the streets. Cedar spends quite a bit of time hiding out in her home, then on her family’s reservation. She experiences a couple different captures and close calls, and at one point is being shuttled through an underground network, sneaking people up to Canada where things are theoretically safer.
I said this was a scary read. That has nothing to do with any “horror” elements and everything to do with the realistic-ness of the situation. It shows how easily panic is sown, how quickly people turn against each other, and how inescapable oppression can be. That all being said, there is also a lot of hope in this book. A lot of people working in the system are also trapped by it. They cooperate because they think they have no other choice, and some try to fight the system from the inside. There are lots of people willing to help Cedar and other pregnant women along their way. Cedar’s families are both supportive and also smart. They know how to keep things secret.
Cedar’s relationships with her biological and adoptive parents progress throughout the story. She meets her biological family during the events of the book, and they have very honest interactions. Her mother’s husband, Eddie, quickly becomes a stepfather figure and mentor of sorts. He is in the process of writing a never-ending memoir, currently at 3,000 pages, called “Why Not to Kill Yourself” which is basically an extended diary of the little things each day that convince him to keep going on. Eddie has major depressive tendencies, but he also has some lackadaisical musings about the point of life that I feel are super relatable. He bounces back and forth between truly depressed and what I see as the Millennial “Why shouldn’t I just kill myself?” mentality. Not that some of that mindset isn’t related to depression, but I see some of it as more lighthearted. Anyway, I thought Eddie was really relatable to Millennials, even though he’s an older individual (though I don’t believe the exact year is stated – if this is set in a few decades, he might be a Millennial anyway).
The relationships in Future Home of the Living God are realistic. People lie to each other to spare feelings. People lie to each other to hurt feelings. Every character has a good balance of rationality and irrationality. There’s little judgement in the story or the writing. I definitely recommend this book and any of Louise Erdrich’s work, which I’m planning on diving into more extensively.
Are you brave enough to read dystopian novels when they mirror current events so closely? What’s the most unnerving one you’ve read?