Last year I read Louise Erdrich’s novel “LaRose”. It's the first book I’ve read by Erdrich. One of the things I found fascinating about it was the mixture of styles she uses and how one story line is quite fantastical/surreal where a pair of characters are continually chased by a decapitated head. So I was interested to find out how she would write about a future-set dystopian landscape in her new novel “Future Home of the Living God” where evolution reverses. People and animals start giving birth to more primitive beings so it’s like nature is winding back to some earlier genetic code. What follows is a suspenseful tale of society’s breakdown where pregnant women are sequestered as the rogue government desperately tries to discover why the next generation has this primitive condition. Readers will naturally liken this story to “The Handmaid’s Tale” for the way it explores through one woman’s perspective the way women’s bodies are controlled and used by a fascist regime. It definitely has those elements, but it reminded me more of Megan Hunter’s recent post-apocalyptic literary novel “The End We Start From” for the way it explores the meaning of family in a time of crisis. Erdrich succeeds on giving a compellingly new take on these issues as well as raising intriguing questions about faith, nationality, race and biology.
The story is told from the perspective of Cedar, a woman in her early thirties who is pregnant and writes this account to her unborn child (even though she fears her child could be born as a being too primitive to be able to read/understand it.) Cedar was raised by a white couple who adopted her and decides to go meet her birth mother for the first time in order to know if there are any genetic conditions that she and her unborn baby should know about. Since her birth mother is a Native American who lives on a reservation this also gives her an opportunity explore the heritage she’s had little contact with. Soon after, news starts coming in about women giving birth to primitive beings. With the central government’s collapse, society fragments into different factions and Cedar goes into survivalist mode. It also becomes necessary for her to go into hiding because all pregnant women are being seized by officials. Tension steadily builds over the course of the story – not only because Cedar fears being captured, but because the reader wonders what the baby will be born like as her pregnancy progresses.
It felt confusing at some points of the story as I didn’t quite understand who was in charge of the country amidst the crisis, why women were being so forcibly corralled and what was happening in larger society. But Erdrich eludes having to create a laboriously detailed picture of the broader scenario she’s created by telling it all through Cedar’s limited second-person narrative. Cedar herself understands little of what’s going on, the internet and phones have stopped working and she’s only desperately trying to survive/give birth to her baby. It’s commented that “The first thing that happens at the end of the world is that we don't know what is happening.” So, while this story gets a bit unwieldy in some parts as it feels like the author could have gone into a lot more detail, the bulk of the narrative is a meditative account on Cedar’s part as she contemplates the meaning of motherhood and heritage.
Cedar also naturally considers the meaning of what's happening and broader issues concerning the development of human history. The story provokes an interesting look at the state of our current world as society struggles with issues of over-population, depletion of resources and large-scale environmental disaster. It's been said by some scientists that our intelligence as humans might have given us a temporary evolutionary advantage to become top of the food chain, but this could be a short-term aberration because in the long run its more primitive species which have the ability to survive over millennia: `'Dinosaurs lasted so much longer than we have, or probably will, yet their brains were so little. Meaning that stupidity is a good strategy for survival? Our level of intelligence could be a maladaptation, a wrong turn, an aberration.” So that evolution winds backward in this story might be a way of nature correcting our unfettered domination of the planet. Cedar contemplates how faith and artistic expression figure into our survival as a species and at one point surmises “I think we have survived because we love beauty and because we find each other beautiful. I think it may be our strongest quality.” The story creates a space in which to thoughtfully consider all these issues and how the choices we make will impact future generations.
A newspaper has previously remarked that “Erdrich is the poet laureate of the contemporary Native American experience.” This story also fascinatingly engages with issues of a reservation and how society's fragmentation allows the Native Americans on this reservation to reclaim land that originally belonged to their ancestors. So the novel also makes a wry social commentary on how such regression might allow an opportunity to correct the wrongs of past generations. Cedar herself grapples with feelings about her heritage and where she fits in society. Her journey through the oppressive circumstances of this story gives an interesting perspective on the propensity for violence within our species: “I know this: there is nothing that one human being will not do to another. We need a god who sides with the wretched.” This is a suspenseful, thought-provoking novel.