I was surprised to hear that Louise Erdrich has a forthcoming novel and was even more surprised when I was handed the book; the image chosen for the cover a grainy, technologically cold image of an ultrasound with the overlaid title: Future Home of the Living God.
A prolific writer—this is Erdrich’s twenty-first novel, in addition to her story collections, poetry, non-fiction, and children’s literature—her preceding titles and book covers lean towards the more earthly: The Antelope Wife, The Plague of Doves, and last year’s LaRose.
Working from a manuscript started in 2002 just after she had given birth to her youngest daughter, Erdrich wrote the bulk of the novel in the middle of the George W. Bush presidency. The manuscript was later saved from technological obscurity by a now-defunct turquoise iMac G3 (my mom called hers “the blueberry”). Our current socio-political climate, particularly in regard to women’s reproductive health, is what compelled Erdrich to return to the story.
With a distinctly dystopian atmosphere, we are introduced to the novel’s protagonist. Cedar Hawk Songmaker, a woman in her mid-twenties adopted as a child by a white liberal couple in Minneapolis, begins the story by venturing north to meet her Ojibwe family, just as a vague feeling of unease descends on the country in the midst of enigmatic government, corporate and religious conflicts. It seems pregnant women are at the center of the disturbance, and Cedar happens to be expecting.
Shrouded in mystery, we learn that women have been experiencing problems with pregnancy, and when her doctor says, “We got one,” Cedar fears for the health of her baby, though he continues, “What that means is we need to keep you here.” Lucky for Cedar, her doctor clears the room, hands her a file with the ultrasound picture and tells her to make a run for it with the advice, “When you get out, don’t tell anybody that you’re pregnant.”
Shortly after this interaction, Cedar witnesses a pregnant woman being apprehended in a parking lot by police of some sort, and from there, we’re off on what feels like a long-distant sprint compared to the leisurely stroll-through-the-park pace of Erdrich’s previous novels.
Written as a long-form letter, a diary of sorts, Cedar composes to her unborn child, the novel explores what happens when progression—or evolution—stops and begins reverting to something more like regression. How will that manifest itself in a complex society so arrogantly concerned with its own survival? And what does that mean for us as individuals and the people we care about most?
Tension is often at the core of Erdrich’s novels, and Future Home of the Living God is no exception to this, though perhaps here it is more overt against an action-heavy backdrop. Longtime readers of Erdrich will see familiar preoccupations: tensions between the modern and the tribal, the religious and the spiritual, and identity, both though self-discovery and self-denial.
Cedar herself is full of these contradictions. She knows she is lucky to have been brought up in her privilege, but still feels the urge to meet her biological mother, despite predicting she will be dissatisfied with her. She is alternately disappointed by her birth mother Mary, AKA Sweetie (Cedar and Sweetie actually have the same birth name: Mary Potts), when she first meets her, and awed by her tenacity at a tribal council meeting to erect a shrine on their reservation for an apparition people swear they have seen a few times in the past year.
Describing the tensions herself, Cedar describes to her unborn baby about its biological grandmother’s quest: “Kateri Takakwitha, Lily of the Mohwaks, patron saint of the Native people. Again, here’s that congruence. Catholic stuff.” Which relates to another leitmotif of the novel—religion. Cedar is a devoted and active Catholic, despite, and also perhaps to spite, the fact her Songmaker parents are decidedly not. Religion, and how much it actually supports us in moments of crisis, is another tautly pulled thread running through the book.
As the plot delves into fast-paced action, Erdrich deftly probes at these frictions and the methods we use to cope in the face of the unthinkable turning into reality. With the narrative structure of this book and the speedy plot, though, a bit of the rich, empathetic portraiture of her characters I appreciate about her writing is lost. Regardless, it’s exciting to see a writer taking risks—pushing the boundaries of their craft—and Future Home of the Living God adds another layer to an expansive voice of contemporary writing.
Future Home of the Living God, by Louise Erdrich. New York: HarperCollins, November 2017. 288 pages. $28.99, hardcover.
Sarah Elsasser is the Director of Adrian Rosenfeld Gallery in San Francisco. She has a master’s degree in Museum Anthropology from Columbia University and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.