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

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:

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.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Maureen Corrigan
Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.