Book of the Week: Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich
Book 17: Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich
Louise Erdrich's latest novel jumps right out of the zeitgeist. Americans have always had a penchant for the apocalyptic, and Future Home is apocalyptic and dystopian in ways both expected and extraordinary. Its publication overlaps with the TV reprise of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, and the similarities could not be more obvious.
Erdrich's protagonist Cedar Songmaker is an Ojibwe woman who was adopted in infancy by a liberal middle class white family in Minnesota. As an act of rebellion, she becomes Roman Catholic, influenced by the Ojibwe community's historical conversion to Catholicism and the recent canonization of St. Kateri Tekakwitha.
She edits a small theology journal and volunteers in her local parish, where she meets Phil. She soon finds herself pregnant and embarks on a journey to find her birth mother and learn her genetic history. Her birth mother is an Ojibwe woman named Mary Potts and Cedar's birth name it turns out is also Mary Potts. Ironic when juxtaposed with her hippie parent's choice of Cedar Songmaker.
All of this takes place against the backdrop of a world gone mad. All of our best science and humanist views of progress are undermined by what appears to be a reversal of evolution. The world is devolving. Humans are beginning to give birth to genetically recessive babies and scientists begin to worry that humans will devolve back into Neanderthals and the like, and perhaps eventually apes.
In this climate, the government begins to round up pregnant women in order to manage their childbirth and to ensure the future of human civilization. Women are forcibly seized from their homes, held in a prison hospital until the child is viable, then deliver by c-section and disappear.
Cedar embarks on a journey to protect her unborn baby from this fate and Future Home is the product of a journal she writes to her baby as she is on the run, hoping to escape to Canada.
Cedar is a supremely hopeful figure. At the end of liberalism, she finds faith. At the end of science, she embraces the mystery of human life. And at the end of the world, she imagines a future for her baby. Her liberal adopted mother wants her to abort and cannot understand why she would put herself and her family in such jeopardy for a child who's genetic makeup is uncertain. And yet, for Cedar, as for Christians everywhere, having a child is a deep act of trust in the living God.
My favorite character in this novel is Cedar's recently discovered step-father Eddie. Eddie married Mary Potts and together they own and operate a gas station and convenience story on the Reservation. When we meet Eddie, he is deeply depressed, writing a memoir thousands of pages long that is little more than an argument with himself about whether or not to commit suicide. As he meets his step-daughter and learns of her pregnancy, he begins to have hope. Then, as the apocalypse gets into full swing, he finds himself energized and invested in hope for the future. He organizes the Ojibwe to recover their historical territory and to protect their own from outsiders, the military, and anyone who would seek to take their pregnant women. His energy and excitement grows as this coming child and this coming apocalypse begin to represent, not the end of the world, but the beginning of a new world—a world where his ancestral land is restored, his people have a purpose, and his grandchildren have a future. Like an Israelite returning from Babylon, Eddie has a renewed sense of purpose and trust in the future of his people. Eddie is a figure right out of a Walker Percy novel, deeply existentialist and trapped by the malaise of modern living. And like most great Percy characters, it takes an apocalypse to spring him to life.