Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdich * Format: Kindle * November 14, 2017
😸😸😸½🔵 Rated 3.5 happy lap cats
Future Home of the Living God is a confusing book. On the one hand, I loved most of it. At 67%, I would have rated it a 5. At 90%, I would have rated it a 4. But, by the end, it feels like the author didn’t quite put the necessary energy into fully fleshing out her world, or figuring out what the meaning of her story is. The ending falls flat, and I was left wondering what it had all been for.
In a work of speculative fiction, the alternate universe has to make sense, or the audience can’t trust that the author knows where this ride is going. That’s what happens in this story. There are contradictions that aren’t explained, the world is left vague, and in the end, we’re not even sure what was real.
I would put Future Home of the Living God in the genre of magical realism as well as calling it a dystopian thriller. The narrator of the story is pregnant. The book is in the form of a journal that she keeps throughout her pregnancy, to be passed on later to her child. The world around her is changing quickly, as evolution begins turning backwards, and society devolves to match.
There is evidence that Cedar, a young Native American woman, is an unreliable narrator. It’s likely that she becomes more unreliable as the story goes on. But the novel is also a contemplation of religion, poetry, the connections between people and place, the things that bring people together and keep them apart, and the place of humanity in history and the universe. But the biggest question it asks is, are we a species that’s even worth saving?
Louise Erdrich introduces these big ideas and ponders them, while telling an entertaining story about women pushed to the brink of endurance. But the book never quite pays off on any of its promises, leaving the reader feeling like the story could have been so much more.
Observations with Spoilers:
Louise Erdrich has created a fascinating world in Future Home of the Living God. Cedar, her main character, is complex and relatable. There are many fascinating side characters, too many to mention, but her stepfather Eddy, her adoptive mother Sera, and her hospital roommate Tia, all come to mind. The story takes Cedar on a journey through many environments, from her isolated home in the woods, to a pregnancy ward in a hospital, to an underground railroad for helping pregnant women escape the government that’s confining them, to an Objibwe reservation, and more.
Even though Cedar spends almost the entire book in hiding or in one form of government confinement or another, we get a strong sense of what this world currently looks and feels like. What we don’t get is how it got that way, or why. The characters don’t know why, which is probably realistic. The evolutionary changes are happening at a pace not heard of outside of religious texts. Religion is one of Cedar’s passions, so evolution and creationism are discussed.
Toward the end of the book, we learn that Cedar is having pregnancy complications. Cedar leaves this vague, only mentioning very, very high blood pressure and water retention. She’s been without medical care of any kind for most of her pregnancy. She’s certainly having preeclampsia, possibly eclampsia, by the end. At some points, I interpret her as hallucinating, or, more accurately, interpreting her visual and auditory symptoms poetically.
As a consequence, I’m left with this question: How much of the book is due to hallucinations brought on by pregnancy complications, or other undiagnosed illnesses? As the first person narrator, she is the only direct point of view we have. This is part of what leaves the book confusing. In that sense, it’s like The Life of Pi. For most of the book, it’s presented as a straightforward diary of the potential end times, but then there are these clues at the end that the whole thing may have been a dream or hallucination.
Unlike the Life of Pi, at least the movie, we aren’t given the tidy wrap up of an explanation. I can live with that. I can live with the book being a world of magical realism or a hallucination or a little of both. But there are structural issues beyond that.
Ludicrous contradictions occur that call into question the reliability of what Cedar is relating to us. Or possibly the author’s commitment to writing a coherent story.
Major plot points are never explained well enough to help the world make sense. As a consequence, Erdrich’s universe feels thrown together and unfinished. I don’t need a scientific breakdown of everything that’s happening, but when 80% of mothers are dying in childbirth, the people standing in the birthing rooms should have some sense of why it’s happening.
Louise Erdrich wrote this book in 2002, not long after a very difficult time in her life. I suspect that those emotions colored this work. One of the characters says, “I thought I was a hero, but I wasn’t.” That feels like the major theme of the book. Everyone struggles, but falls short. In the long run, no one meets expectations, their own or anyone else’s.
We think of our species as heroic, as the culmination of the work of evolution or a deity. But this book asks, what if we’re not? Previous species of hominids lived through eons of stability, while in a few hundred thousand years we’ve upset the balance of nature to the point of causing worldwide extinctions. What if nature decides that our species was one step too far along the evolutionary road, and decides to take that step back?
That’s an intriguing question, and it got me to pick up the book. But the ball is dropped on that as well. We never see the babies who are causing such a fuss. We never even find out the specifics of what’s so different about them, beyond a few vague details. Our place in evolution is a concept that’s been explored in works as disparate as Planet of the Apes, the Xmen and Children of Men, and they all had something meaningful to add to the conversation. Future Home of the Living God stops before it makes its point.
Instead, the book turns into a dark fairy tale about loss, grief, and disillusionment, with the messages that, in the end, all heroes have feet of clay, and it’s impossible to prepare for the worst. If the reader approaches the book with the understanding that it’s not science fiction, which is how it’s being promoted, but is instead magical realism, it becomes a much better book.
Then the important part of the story is not the dystopia that the world is becoming, but the inner journey taken by Cedar, and, by extension, a few of the characters closest to her. The dystopian aspects are only there to support Cedar’s journey, so it’s best to accept that Cedar describes the world in the ways that make sense to her, whether it’s using religion, art, biology, anthropology, or fantasy.
If the reader can do that, this book goes back up to a 4. Cedar has an incredible inner journey. In the end, she understands herself and her role a certain way, and makes some kind of peace with it. It’s not a happy story or a happy ending. It is, in some ways, a story about the terrible choices we’re sometimes faced with in life, and how we make them. And how sometimes, we make them seemingly accidentally, because we can’t face them head on.