For many pregnant women, a first sonogram is a thrilling revelation.
For Cedar Songmaker, the narrator of Louise Erdrich’s new novel Future Home of the Living God, it’s a moment of foreboding.
"At first there is only the gray uterine blur," Cedar tells us, "and then suddenly the screen goes charcoal and out of the murk your hand wavers. ... There is something about your hand, just a feeling, and I am upset for a moment. Just a hand — but a sense of clarity and power."
As the test continues, "The technician is intent, focused utterly on what she sees. They are inside of your head now, peering up from beneath your jaw and then over into the structure of your brain, which I see as an icy swirl of motion held in a perfect circle of white ash."
In the moments after she sees that image, Cedar will make the first of many desperate escapes to protect that being with the glowing brain.
Cedar addresses her story to her child not only in anticipation of its birth, but out of fear she might not share its life. In the near-future world Erdrich creates in this book, evolution seems to have gone haywire. For every species, including humans, reproduction is a wild gamble.
Future Home is a departure for Erdrich. This is her 16th novel; she has also published children’s books, poetry and nonfiction. Among many other honors, she won the National Book Award in 2012 for The Round House, and has won the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction twice, in 1984 for her first novel, Love Medicine, and in 2016 for her 15th, LaRose.
Erdrich has said that she wrote a draft of Future Home in 2002 and put it aside for years, but the current political climate moved her to revive it.
Her previous novels have been mostly realistic, beautifully written, insightful family sagas, often about Native American people. (Erdrich is a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians.) In many of them, a community faces adversity but finds a way to come together to trust and support each other.
Future Home moves in the opposite direction: Cedar begins with not one but two loving families, as well as several supportive communities, but sees them fragmented by a rapidly crumbling social order.
Adopted as an infant and dotingly raised by Glen and Sera Songmaker, gently idealistic Minneapolis liberals, Cedar has never met her biological relatives. Her somewhat romanticized self-image is shaken when she does and learns that her real name is Mary Potts, and that’s also the name of her mother, grandmother and sister — she’s "just another of many Mary Potts reaching back to the colonization of this region, many of whom now worked at the Superpumper franchise first stop before the casino."
But now, halfway through a pregnancy by a man whose identity the book reveals slowly, Cedar is glad to have the help of both families. In an effort to analyze what’s happening and to maintain control, the government is rounding up pregnant women.
As Cedar tells us, "(W)hat began so long ago as the Patriot Act" is amended to allow the government to seize medical databases and compel pregnant women "to be sequestered in hospitals in order to give birth under controlled circumstances. It is for our own safety and we are required to go voluntarily."
To facilitate this "female gravid detention," the government commandeers UPS trucks for its Unborn Protective Services — no need to change the logo. Once those women enter the hospitals, no one knows what happens to them — or to their babies.
Cedar’s adoptive father, Glen, doubts the government, or anyone else, can predict or control what will happen. "If evolution is going backward, which is still only an improbable idea," he says, "then we would not see the orderly backward progression of human types that evolutionary charts are so fond of presenting. Life might skip forward, sideways, in unforeseen directions. We wouldn’t see the narrative we think we know. Why? Because there was never a story moving forward and there wouldn’t be one moving backward. ... We might actually see chaos."
That’s just what they’re seeing, and not just in terms of the saber-toothed cat and dragonflies with 3-foot wingspans outside their windows. Pregnant women are taken into custody, but for everyone the power goes off, information from TV and the internet fades away, food and gasoline become terrifyingly scarce.
Erdrich’s dystopia in Future Home inevitably calls up comparison with Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, especially when that fine novel has seen a renaissance in print and on screen this year. There are similarities, but Atwood paints a world where the enslavement of women is accomplished fact, where a theocratic dictatorship has established order and handed out the uniforms. Erdrich focuses on an earlier stage in that process, the frightening historical moment when the old order collapses but only disorder has so far emerged in its wake.
She skillfully conveys the cold dread that permeates a world where every assumption is undermined and anyone could be a betrayer. Much of the book is a thriller, as Cedar careens from reservation to suburb to hospital to a hidden city of caves and beyond.
As she did in the former world, Cedar looks for comfort in her Catholic faith. The book is populated with images of the Virgin Mary and of female Catholic saints, especially Kateri Tekakwitha, the first Native American to become a saint, and Hildegard of Bingen, an 11th century abbess and mystic.
But salvation isn’t guaranteed for Cedar or her child, just a mother’s courage and ingenuity against a bleak world.
Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.
"Future Home of the Living God"
By Louise Erdrich
Harper, 269 pages, $28.99