Books

Louise Erdrich
Future Home of the Living God

Future Home of the Living God is another example of the growing genre known as climate-change fiction or cli-fi. Louise Erdrich is a multi-award-winning American writer whose mother is First Nation (Chippewa) and whose father is German-American, and who identifies with both lineages. Erdrich is a prolific writer of poetry, fiction and nonfiction, but she is best known for her novels and stories in the modes of science fiction and magical realism. This cli-fi novel brings these two modes together, merging a dystopian vision of America’s future with magical and uncanny happenings.

Like Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book, Erdrich’s cli-fi novel adopts an indigenous perspective in its vision of environmental devastation and social chaos. The narrator, Cedar Hawk Songmaker, is a young First Nation woman who was adopted by white middle-class parents. Cedar’s adoptive parents, “happily married vegans” who wanted to celebrate the heritage of their “Indian princess”, are the ones responsible for her stereotypically “Indian” name. Her status as someone “part wild” also earns her special authority at school: “My observations on birds, bugs, worms, clouds, cats and dogs, were quoted. I supposedly had a hotline to nature.”

The first “apocalypse” in Cedar’s life occurs when she is deprived of those myths of her identity through a meeting with her birth mother, who “had no special powers or connections with healing spirits or sacred animals. We weren’t even poor.” She also meets her teenage sister, known as Little Mary, who affects a postmodern “Goth-Lolita” look and is praised by her mother for being the “only girl who doesn’t fuck and do drugs in her whole class”. The reunion is largely played for laughs. To complete her fall into ordinariness, Cedar discovers that her birth name was Mary Potts, after her birth mother.

Cedar’s fall from grace – in a novel in which Christian myths circulate, as per the multiplication of Marys – also coincides with the unmarried protagonist becoming pregnant. Pregnancy and childbirth are likewise figured as apocalyptic and redefining events, their potential for danger and renewal stressed in a narrative context in which the human species is apparently devolving, evolutionarily speaking. On TV, Cedar sees “a swirling set of graphics – humanoid figures growing hunched as they walked into the mists of time, while in the background Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony dissolves into a haunting series of hoots and squawks.”

In fact, Cedar had sought out her birth family to ask: “Are there illnesses in the family? Anything my baby might inherit?” She puts these questions to her elderly and invalid grandmother – another Mary – who switches on like “a pinball machine” and starts telling fantastical stories.

I hear the Story of the Two-Faced Child, the Tooth-Spitting Grave, the Talking Drum, When the Frogs Sang Like Birds, the Story of the Dog That Shit a Diamond Ring, the Unholy Mirror, the Nun Who Fed Her Baby to a Sow, the Nun Who Swallowed a White Ribbon and It Came Out the Other End White Too, the Twenty Dead Who Appeared at Mass, an Avalanche of Fish, the Much Confused Sister, How One Twin Killed the Other, a Weightless Apple, Boiling Rain, and others which I can’t just now recall.

Erdrich’s tone is typically irreverent and comic when it comes to relating First Nation stereotypes, but it also plays with Christian and, in particular, Catholic myths. Often the two merge, as in the figure of Kateri Tekakwitha, the first First Nation Catholic saint, who begins appearing outside the reservation casino. Cedar’s First Nation mother strategically builds a shrine for Saint Kateri in the parking lot in order to capitalise on “pilgrimage crowds”. When Kateri reportedly materialises to a feckless gambler, her message is sobering: “All of you are nothing but a bunch of idiots.”

Erdrich is ultimately uninterested in upholding the tenets and comforts of identity politics and faith. Her interest in contemporary issues around reproduction and women’s bodies becomes apparent as the plot takes an Atwood-esque turn, with an increasingly religious and fascist government hunting down and detaining pregnant and fertile women for reproductive use. The pregnant Cedar finds herself a fugitive, desperate for a haven in which to give birth to her child. Thus, Cedar’s story repeats the story of Christianity’s Mary as well as the experience of her First Nation birth mother.

The ways in which First Nation people have already experienced an apocalypse is a point made but not overplayed. Notably, Eddy, married to Cedar’s First Nation mother, is unfazed by the prospect of change: “Indians have been adapting since before 1492.” In fact, as the country descends into a state of emergency and people flee to the cities, tribal leaders reclaim their ancestral lands.

However, the sense that the world is regressing to a former state has a different resonance for the pregnant Cedar. While confined, she sees a feathered creature with wings and a head that is “beakless, featherless, lizardlike, rosy red” in the garden outside. Observing this prehistoric creature, Cedar reflects on her pregnancy as a primordial experience that links an unknown ancient history with an unknown future: “I have that sense of time folding in on itself, the same tranced awareness I experienced in the ultrasound room. I realize this: I am not at the end of things, but the beginning.” If Cedar conceptualises her pregnancy as steeped with a sense of magical history and possibility, this is intimately linked with wonder at the natural world: “Dear baby, I want you to see this world, supernal, lovely. I want this world to fill your eyes.”

Future Home of the Living God stands out in its genre due to its wit and complexity. It is also unique for its sustained first-person portrait of the drama and profundity of pregnancy and birth. P. D. James’s The Children of Men attempted something similar, but was ultimately distracted by its male characters and a masculine plot. Erdrich shows that there is enough material in women’s experience of childbirth to support cli-fi literature of dramatic intensity and philosophical scope.  KN

Corsair, 432pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 18, 2017 as "Louise Erdrich, Future Home of the Living God". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: KN

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