In light of — or in the darkness of — our political moment, it's all too easy to suspect that we're going backward, leaving any hard-won progress toward enlightenment, civility, fairness and justice in a sorry heap behind us. This suspicion takes on a symbolic life in the not-too-distant future world of Louise Erdrich's new novel, "Future Home of the Living God," where life itself has taken a backward turn.
Evolution seems to have reversed itself, and nowhere is this more alarming than in the devolution occurring in human reproduction. Only the rare pregnancy is producing an "original" — that is, a good old-fashioned human baby. And so, the species having lost its way, pregnant women, and eventually all women of childbearing age, are under siege.
Erdrich eases us into this. Her narrator, Cedar Hawk Songmaker, "the adopted child of Minneapolis liberals," is telling this story to her unborn child, and she begins when, four months pregnant, she sets out to meet her Ojibwe parents. The diary, initially concerned with Cedar's somewhat bumpy adjustment to the bourgeois reality of her birth family, only gradually reveals itself as a chronicle of the harrowing odyssey her pregnancy becomes.
Pregnancy, of course, has a natural narrative arc, and Cedar's due date, Dec. 25, connects hers to the most famous childbearing story of all time. Making the connection explicit, Cedar edits "a magazine of Catholic inquiry called Zeal," whose current issue's theme is Incarnation. Thus, as she spins out the suspense of her predicament — will she escape? be caught? escape again? and what kind of baby will she have? — Cedar can reflect on the mysteries of motherhood and language, ontogeny and the Word made flesh.
With more than a touch of Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale," "Future Home of the Living God" depicts a degraded natural world where religious zealots use the threat to reproduction to enslave fertile women. Here motherhood is at once a miraculous and a sinister force. Cedar's birth and adoptive mothers are both wonderfully maternal, inspired in their protectiveness, but the enemy is also embodied in Mother, first an apparition flickering on computer screens, and then a diabolical material presence.
And then there are the pregnant women imprisoned with Cedar at various stages. One, Tia, joins Cedar in a daring escape through a series of caves carved in the banks of the Mississippi River — a flight through ever more difficult passages, echoing the extraordinary childbirth scene unfolding at the same time.
And yet, steeped as it is in dystopian darkness, Cedar's diary is most remarkable for the amiable, heartfelt way in which it captures what's familiar — in friendships and families, in communities and in nature. It is against this prosaic background, so artful in its seeming artlessness, that the loss anticipated in this novel registers in all its depth and sorrow.
"Where will you be, my darling," Cedar asks her unseen infant in the end, "the last time it snows on earth?"
Ellen Akins is a writer and teacher of writing in northern Wisconsin.
Future Home of the Living God
By: Louise Erdrich.
Publisher: Harper, 267 pages, $28.99.
Event: 7 p.m. Nov. 14, St. Paul's Church on Lake of the Isles, 1917 Logan Av. S., Mpls. $32 includes book. Register at https://birchbarkbooks.com