There is a half-crazed urgency to so much of our cultural discourse now, and it still doesn’t feel normal — this unrelenting vertiginous tumult that surely, surely will subside. When it does, we think, we’ll reset, readjust, move forward again on safer, steadier ground.
“Historic times!” Cedar Hawk Songmaker writes to her unborn child in “Future Home of the Living God,” Louise Erdrich’s grippingly dystopian 16th novel about a terrifying new order and the organized resistance that fights it doggedly.
From the press material accompanying the book, we learn that Erdrich has dispatched her tale from right this very moment — a book she started in 2002 but found the fury to complete only in 2017. Viscerally, bracingly, we recognize in Cedar’s journal entries (the means by which Erdrich tells her tale) the same miasma of anxiety and unease that Americans now breathe. This is fiction, of course; the details are not from our world. But the sensation is.
It is a gesture of faith toward the future merely for Cedar to address the little human taking shape inside her — to insist on keeping a record of all that’s going so badly wrong, when she doesn’t know whether her child will even have the capacity to comprehend it.
“I’ll write this anyway,” she reasons, “because ever since last week things have changed. Apparently — I mean, nobody knows — our world is running backward.” Or possibly in some other direction, but in any case progress has ceased. “I am sure somebody will come up with a name for what is happening, but I cannot imagine how everything around us and everything within us can be fixed.”
As she introduces herself to her gestating baby, Cedar is of course also talking to herself. A 26-year-old Minneapolis editor, she grew up a privileged only child in a tight little family, raised by doting, ultra-progressive white parents who always celebrated her Native American heritage. Thus the flashy name they gave her, in diametric contrast to her birth name, Mary Potts. Her mom and dad, Sera and Glen Songmaker, don’t yet know that Cedar is pregnant. Her ex-boyfriend does, but when he calls she ignores the phone.
Her strongest yearning, four months along, is to meet her birth mother, Sweetie, and so she does, journeying up to the reservation where Sweetie lives, partly to ask about any inherited medical conditions. But the biggest threat to Cedar’s fetus is the same one that threatens all the others, if the rumors are true. Alarmingly, the planet’s reverse course seems to have reached the level of biological devolution. In the new generation being born, many are an earlier form of the species.
In an extension of the Patriot Act, the government begins rounding up pregnant women — “gravid female detention,” they call it. The surgeon general announces that “pregnant women will be sequestered in hospitals in order to give birth under controlled circumstances” for their own safety. What happens once they’re in the clutches of the regime is a matter of grim speculation and — for the women and their babies — maybe mortal danger. If this sounds to you like Erdrich has crossed over into Margaret Atwood territory (shades of “The Handmaid’s Tale” et al), you are correct.
There are many strands to this novel: race, class, the ruined environment, the beleaguered human family. Spirituality is here, too; it’s no accident that our expectant heroine came into the world as a Mary, then grew into a woman whose humble Catholicism has little in common with the government’s belligerent religiosity. Erdrich’s vision is of a United States so odious that both Canada and Mexico have sealed its borders against us.
Plodding a bit as it traces Cedar’s newly expanded family (Sweetie, a stepfather, an ancient grandmother, a younger sister), the sometimes overloaded narrative is most vivid and suspenseful when it focuses fully on her pregnancy.
“It is now a crime to harbor or help a pregnant woman,” Cedar’s ex-boyfriend, Phil, tells her, alighting back in her life. Now that she’s showing, he says, she shouldn’t even stand in front of a window in her own home: too risky, what with rewards being offered for turning pregnant women in. Cedar duly hides herself away. Then someone sells her out.
Once she is imprisoned, the story turns thrilling — because Cedar and the other captives have no intention of going along willingly, because a nine-month gestation period is a time bomb waiting to go off (one way or another, that baby will come out), and because Erdrich knows that hugely pregnant women are capable of tremendous daring. So, it turns out, is Sera, who unsurprisingly and heroically is part of the resistance.
Cedar records all of this, and words of poignant recollection, too, for her little one. “My parents would tell me things about the world, the way it was before, the way they knew it and loved it although, they always said this, We didn’t know it was heaven.”
There was a time when a line like that might seem overwrought. That time is not now.
FUTURE HOME OF THE LIVING GOD
Once she is imprisoned, the story turns thrilling — because Cedar and the other captives have no intention of going along willingly.
By Louise Erdrich
Harper, 269 pp., $28.99Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.