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Future Home of the Living God: A Novel Hardcover – November 14, 2017
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“…a streamlined dystopian thriller…Erdrich’s tense and lyrical new work of speculative fiction stands shoulder-to-braced-shoulder right alongside The Handmaid’s Tale.” (Maureen Corrigan, NPR’s Fresh Air)
“Erdrich is a seer, a visionary whose politics are inextricable from her fiction…[Future Home of the Living God] is an eerie masterpiece, a novel so prescient that though it conjures an alternate reality, it often provokes the feeling that, yes this is really happening.” (O, The Oprah Magazine)
“Philosophical yet propulsive…Future Home of the Living God is as much a thriller as it is a religious-themed literary novel — it thrives on narrow escapes, surprise character appearances, and a perpetual sense of peril…effective and cannily imagined.” (USA Today)
“Masterful…a breakout work of speculative fiction…Erdrich enters the realm of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale…A tornadic, suspenseful, profoundly provoking novel of life’s vulnerability and insistence…with a bold apocalyptic theme, searing social critique, and high-adrenaline action.” (Booklist, Starred Review)
“[A] startling new work of speculative fiction…strikingly relevant. Erdrich has written a cautionary tale for this very moment in time.” (Publishers Weekly, boxed review)
“A dazzling work of dystopian fiction a la Handmaid’s Tale.” (Real Simple)
“Propulsive, wry, and keenly observant…this chilling speculative fiction is perfect for readers seeking the next Handmaid’s Tale.” (Library Journal)
“An original (and utterly terrifying) creation…Haunting…smart but not pretentious. It is funny, thrilling, and heartbreaking, all without missing a beat – an impressive achievement.” (BookBrowse, Starred Review)
“[Erdrich] once again proves her talent for narrating a profound and compelling story.” (Ms. Magazine)
From the Back Cover
Evolution stops as mysteriously as it began. Pregnancy and childbearing quickly become issues of state security. Twenty-six-year-old Cedar, the adopted daughter of idealistic Minneapolis liberals, is as disturbed and uncertain as the rest of America. But for Cedar, this change is profound and deeply personal. She is four months pregnant.
As Cedar travels north to find her Ojibwe family, ordinary life begins to disintegrate. Swelling panic creates warring government, corporate, and religious factions. In a mall parking lot, Cedar witnesses a pregnant woman wrenched from her family under a new law. As she evades capture, Cedar also experiences a fraught love with her baby’s father, who tries to hide her.
An unexpected dystopian thriller from a writer of startling originality, Future Home of the Living God is also a moving meditation on female agency, love, self-determination, biology, and natural rights.
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Erdrich supplies an "author's note" at the beginning of this work, explaining that she wrote the original version of it in 2002, then set the book aside for a number of years while writing the two subsequent novels mentioned above. She tells us that she revisited this novel in 2016 and made some revisions, then sent it to her editor who arranged to have it published this year. Under most circumstances, this would be good news, but one is also almost invited to raise the question whether this novel might not have been better off put back in the drawer for another period of gestation and possible improvement.
There are several problems. Perhaps the most obvious is the inevitable points of comparison with Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. In both, we have a dystopian development in the United States that leads to a government that has taken complete control of women's lives, defining them as childbearers and regulating their pregnancies and the fates of their children. In Erdrich's world, the situation has developed quickly in the context of climate change and ecological collapse, rendering most of the social and economic conditions, services and institutions either inaccessible or eradicated. Communication is controlled where it is available, with only sporadic access to television and radio, both mostly censored. This means pervasive uncertainty and inevitable paranoia, especially among women of childbearing age, since the "crisis" includes a frightening but mostly undefined "reversal" of "evolution." This seems to have included reduction of the number of live births, high infant and maternal mortality, and the arrival of more or less unrecognizable infants (this extends to the animal and plant worlds, as well) who are believed to be products of different genetic and evolutionary strains. The consequence--pregnant women are rounded up, imprisoned in makeshift maternity hospitals, and variously disposed of according to the expectations or beliefs of the persons in charge. Because of bounties and other rewards, the social fabric is shredded as increasingly desperate people try to avoid starvation and homelessness by turning in their neighbors whom they know to be pregnant. So the situation is not identical to that of the handmaids in Atwood's world, but the attitudes and consequences for women are comparable.
Another point of similarity is that Erdrich gives us a first person narrative in the form of a journal written by Cedar, addressed to the unborn child she is carrying, with occasional additions of letters and excerpts from the manuscript of a novel being written by Eddy, the husband of Cedar's birth mother. Cedar is anxious to keep the journal secret, especially once she is aware of the perils created by the transformed government that is determined to capture and control her and to confiscate her baby when it is born. The survival of this journal through the many threatening and destructive situations Cedar encounters is, to say the least, one implausible aspect of the novel. It is part of the premise of many dystopias that the conditions that constitute "reality" may be altered or replaced by new realities, but we are given nothing to encourage belief that this manuscript of Cedar's extensive writings would have survived--we must just take it on faith. Atwood, as readers of Handmaid's Tale know, provides a context and some pseudo-scholarly explanations that make the availability of Offred's narrative at least plausible.
Erdrich's heroine, Cedar, is a young woman who has learned she was adopted by her parents, affluent post-hippy types, benevolent and loving. She has grown up in privilege, but finds that she is actually the daughter of an Ojibwe woman who gave her up for adoption at birth. She sets out to meet that birth mother on the reservation in northern Minnesota at the same time that the "crisis" is becoming more urgent and governmental measures are expanding, asserting more control over women and families. And services are collapsing--runs on banks, the possible collapse of the currency system, and so forth are threatening everyone's lives. And Cedar knows she is pregnant.
Cedar's situation develops, with a variety of complications related to her encounter with her tribal family, and the beginning of divided loyalties on the personal level as she tries to maintain her loving relationship with her adoptive family and also to cope with her relationship with Phil, the father of her baby. The more serious situation is her effort to hide until she gives birth once it is widely known that pregnant women are being rounded up.
Many of Erdrich's familiar themes and subjects are effectively developed in this novel, and her fans will recognize the world and the dilemmas it presents. The plot becomes more complicated and violent, and the intricacies seem finally to defeat the effort to keep this novel at a level consistent with our expectations of Erdrich. There is a sense of desperation that is not part of the narrative (though there is plenty of desperaton and tension in the events), but is a feeling that Erdrich is struggling to take control of a style and narrative form that is not her usual fictional world; it is as though the familiar dystopian tropes exercise a damaging or distorting force that distracts her from the best of her fictional instincts. The themes of love and betrayal, of double dealing and misguided trust, of guilt and self-absolution, are part of the best of Erdrich's work, and they are here, but feel underdeveloped, unfinished. It is as though even the long gestation of this novel was not enough to let it reach maturity. Many will want to read it, and they should, but many may also feel a certain regret that it is not up to expectations.
The novel is written as Cedar’s ongoing journal, written to her unborn child. She is Native American, but she was raised by two white liberal hippies in Minneapolis. As the novel begins, she meets her Ojibwe birth family, but time runs out before she can really develop a relationship with them. Once the government begins grabbing pregnant women in the street, Cedar needs to go into hiding, with both of her families determined to help her. But is hiding going to be enough? And is anywhere safe?
While this is a post-apocalyptic novel, the focus of the story is really on Cedar and her efforts to hold onto her identity, her womanhood, and her humanity in the face of a horrible reality. The horrible reality itself is never really explained. How did genetics start working backwards, turning the earth into a mutated mess? And how could everything devolve so quickly? These aren’t things that are important to Eldrich, but I found myself scratching my head time and again, trying to understand. As Cedar surmises, “Our bodies have always remembered who we were. And now they have decided to return. We’re climbing back down the swimming-pool ladder into the primordial soup.” She mentions “abnormalities in the neocortex,” but little more is explained. The suggestion is that people like Cedar – average people with no connection to the government or doctors or researchers – would always be in the dark in situations like this. “The first thing that happens at the end of the world,” she says, “is that we don’t know what is happening.” That’s probably true, but it’s also frustrating in a novel this complex and involved. The world Cedar lives in has fallen apart, and it’s not at all clear how or why. As Cedar finally concludes, “God got tired of us,” but that’s not exactly an explanation.
There are definitely parts of this novel that are very much like HANDMAID’S TALE (where fertile women are enslaved by a religiously-controlled government) and like the MADDADAM novels (where genetic manipulation has decimated like on earth). The ending is reminiscent of CHILDREN OF MEN (the book, not the movie), with questions posed as to the ultimate value of a healthy baby born in a world without hope. The difference is that all of these books portray a world that has fallen apart over time – none of this happens overnight. But in FUTURE HOME OF THE LIVING GOD, things seem to happen in the blink of an eye. One day Cedar is driving North to visit her birth family, and the next day the government has taken control and she’s figuring out how to evade the goon squads.
Ultimately, this is a very readable, literary novel that poses broad questions about humanity. It was a little slow getting going – this is not an action novel, but more an introspective series of Cedar’s musings – but once I got to know the characters, I found it engaging. I still have countless questions about just how this particular nightmare happened, but if you can suspend disbelieve and just go with the premise, Cedar’s story is an interesting one. I did enjoy reading it.
[Please note: I was provided an Advance Reading Copy of this novel free of charge; the opinions expressed here are my own.]
Really, I should. It's that kind of literary dystopia that I normally loathe. But, oh I loved it.
My expectation was something like Children of Men. There are shades of it, of course. Shades of Handmaid as well. But the book stands on its own.
You've got Cedar - she's tough, edgy, yet somewhat vulnerable. And in the midst of a world gone horribly wrong, she's finally learning who she is.
As she learns her own history and struggles with the fact that, as a pregnant woman, she's now horribly of interest to society - of such interest that people will do anything to take her - I was so deeply riveted that I simply couldn't stop reading.
Readers should note that the book is bleak. It's not one of those literary dystopic novels that's really just an excuse for bloviating about art and culture and society and connections. Here, instead, our soft apocalyptic events lead to an unmasking of the rot in the heart of humanity.
This is an excellent book and well worth the read!
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