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Louise Erdrich Delivers A Dystopian Feminist Thriller In 'Future Home'

Nov 14, 2017
Originally published on November 15, 2017 1:38 pm

Before I finally picked up and read Louise Erdrich's new novel, called Future Home of the Living God, there was a mighty obstacle that had to be faced — an obstacle called The Handmaid's Tale. After Margaret Atwood's magisterial achievement, is there really room for another dystopian feminist novel about the overthrow of democracy by a Christian fundamentalist regime that enslaves fertile women and reduces them to simple vessels of procreation?

The somewhat unsettling answer is "Sure!"

Erdrich reminds us here that the unthinkable could happen in a variety of ways. Rather than standing in the shadow of Atwood's classic, Erdrich's tense and lyrical new work of speculative fiction stands shoulder-to-braced-shoulder right alongside it.

Future Home of the Living God is loosely structured as a series of letters that our heroine, a 26-year-old woman named Cedar Hawk Songmaker, writes to her unborn child. Cedar is impelled to write these letters because, well, something weird is going on.

Nature has doubled back on itself and plants and animals and fetuses seem to be randomly devolving. Pregnant women are being rounded up by agents of the new religious government, called "The Church of the New Constitution." The women give birth in prison-like maternity hospitals and, afterwards, it seems they may face a future of enforced serial pregnancies. But no one is certain because, as one character shrewdly comments, "The first thing that happens at the end of the world is that we don't know what is happening."

Complicating the already fraught subject of motherhood in this novel is the fact that Cedar was born to an Ojibwe woman, but was adopted as an infant by a couple whom she refers to as white "Minneapolis liberals" — parents whom Cedar loves as much as she mocks. Ironically, Cedar Hawk Songmaker has recently found out that her name at birth was plain old Mary Potts.

Because she's pregnant, Cedar feels an urgency about connecting with her birth mother. She takes to the road on an odyssey into a panicked America where people are starting to hoard cigarettes and liquor for barter, and are dumping their cell phones and laptops. They're returning to un-hackable modes of communication, like passing handwritten notes and sending word via the Native American network known as "the moccasin telegraph."

In some of her more recent novels like The Plague of Doves and The Round House, Erdrich has been edging over into literary suspense and, boy, does her achieved mastery of pacing, cliffhangers and depictions of physical violence come in handy here.

The only thing that's ungainly about Future Home of the Living God is its title; otherwise it's a streamlined dystopian thriller. Along with a series of jittery escape and fight scenes, Erdrich conjures up a 12-page description in which a pregnant friend of Cedar's, who's hiding out in a cave, goes into labor. It's a scene that's matchless in its precision and terror.

Also scattered throughout this breathless novel are beautiful meditative passages where Cedar, in those letters to her baby, considers the world gone wrong and the approaching apocalypse. Here's one:

We are so brief. A one-day dandelion. A seedpod skittering across the ice. We are a feather falling from the wing of a bird. I don't know why it is given to us to be so mortal and to feel so much. It is a cruel trick, and glorious.

In a postscript, Erdrich tells her readers that she first hatched the idea for Future Home of the Living God on a road trip with her daughters in 2001. Clearly, as the widespread heightened appreciation of The Handmaid's Tale indicates, this is the right cultural moment for feminist dystopian fiction. That's good news, at least for literature.

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Over her long career, Louise Erdrich has written 16 novels. Lately, she's been on a real roll. Three of her recent novels have won the National Book Critics Circle Award, the National Book Award and been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Our book critic, Maureen Corrigan, says that Erdrich's new novel is something to celebrate as well. Here's her review of "Future Home Of The Living God."

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: Before I finally picked up and read Louise Erdrich's new novel called "Future Home Of The Living God," there was a mighty obstacle that had to be faced, an obstacle called "The Handmaid's Tale." After Margaret Atwood's magisterial achievement is there really room for another dystopian feminist novel about the overthrow of democracy by a Christian fundamentalist regime that enslaves fertile women and reduces them to simple vessels of procreation? The somewhat unsettling answer is sure. Erdrich reminds us here that the unthinkable could happen in a variety of ways. Rather than standing in the shadow of Atwood's classic, Erdrich's tense and lyrical new work of speculative fiction stands shoulder to braced shoulder right alongside it.

"Future Home Of The Living God" is loosely structured as a series of letters that our heroine, a 26-year-old woman named Cedar Hawk Songmaker, writes to her unborn child. Cedar is impelled to write these letters because, well, something weird is going on. Nature has doubled back on itself, and plants and animals and fetuses seem to be randomly devolving. Pregnant women are being rounded up by agents of the new religious government called The Church of the New Constitution. The women give birth in prison-like maternity hospitals. And afterwards, it seems they may face a future of enforced serial pregnancies, but no one is certain because, as one character shrewdly comments, the first thing that happens at the end of the world is that we don't know what is happening.

Complicating the already fraught subject of motherhood in this novel is the fact that Ceder was born to an Ojibwe woman but was adopted as an infant by a couple whom she refers to as white Minnesota liberals, parents whom Ceder loves as much as she mocks. Ironically, Cedar Hawk Songmaker has recently found out that her name at birth was plain old Mary Potts. Because she's pregnant, Cedar feels an urgency about connecting with her birth mother. She takes to the road on an odyssey into a panicked America where people are starting to hoard cigarettes and liquor for barter and are dumping their cellphones and laptops. They're returning to un-hackable modes of communication, like passing handwritten notes and sending word via the Native American network known as the moccasin telegraph.

In some of her more recent novels, like "The Plague Of Doves" and "The Round House," Erdrich has been edging over into literary suspense and, boy, does her achieved mastery of pacing, cliffhangers and depictions of physical violence come in handy here. The only thing that's ungainly about "Future Home Of The Living God" is its title. Otherwise, it's a streamlined dystopian thriller.

Along with a series of jittery escape and fight scenes, Erdrich conjures up a 12-page description in which a pregnant friend of Cedar's, who is hiding out in a cave, goes into labor. It's a scene that's matchless in its precision and terror. Also scattered throughout this breathless novel are beautiful meditative passages where Cedar, in those letters to her baby, considers the world gone wrong and the approaching apocalypse. Here's one. (Reading) We are so brief, Cedar writes, a one-day dandelion, a seed pod skittering across the ice. We are a feather falling from the wing of a bird. I don't know why it is given to us to be so mortal and to feel so much. It is a cruel trick and glorious.

In a postscript, Erdrich tells her readers that she first hatched the idea for "Future Home Of The Living God" on a road trip with her daughters in 2001. Clearly, as the widespread heightened appreciation of "The Handmaid's Tale" indicates, this is the right cultural moment for feminist dystopian fiction. That's good news, at least for literature.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Future Home Of The Living God" by Louise Erdrich. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be New York Times investigative reporters Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey. They broke the Harvey Weinstein story. Twohey also reported on the sexual misconduct allegations against Donald Trump. Kantor reported on the sexual misconduct allegations against Louis C.K. I hope you'll join us. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.