Future Home of the Living God: A Novel by Louise Erdrich (New York: HarperCollins, 2017. 288 pp)

Louise Erdrich lives with her family in Minnesota and is the owner of Birchbark Books, an independent bookstore. She is also the bestselling author of many critically acclaimed novels for adults, including the Pulitzer Prize finalist The Plague of Doves and the National Book Award finalist The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse. She is also the author of the picture book Grandmother’s Pigeon, illustrated by Jim LaMarche.

Where Have You Gone, Habeas Corpus?

Under what circumstances would martial law and the denial of habeas corpus have merit?

A core value of society is that we literally have a body. Habeas corpus guarantees court summons and proof of detention. Martial law seems valuable when the structures and institutions of power cease to hold governing power. But what do we assume when we think about the loss of such rights?

For one, we assume a lawless society is one that Thomas Hobbes constructs. Nasty. Poor. Brutish. Short.

We assume national interests align with individual interests. Those arguing for a more authoritarian approach likely believe that any loss of personal privacy or property is worth it for the greater good.

When unimaginable suffering sits on the plausible horizon many unmentionable actions become more palatable.

So, what would it take for most of us to give up our rights and trust in whatever power structures that be?

Louise Erdrich explores these questions in her latest novel, Future Home of the Living God.

Cedar, Meet Your New World

The narrative follows Cedar, an adopted Ojibwe raised by Glen and Sera, open-minded Minneapolis liberals.

Told in a diary format, Cedar writes of a world in decay to her unborn child. She writes about global economic destruction in fits and starts, but the hints point toward some massive mutations in the evolutionary system. These shifts appear to make child bearing deadly for mother and child, most of the time.

“The next morning, before I leave for the casino, to meet Sera, I turn on the television. Reports are coming in of experiments hastily conducted on fruit flies, DNA experts who say on the molecular level it is like skipping around in time, and that small-celled creatures and plants have been shuffling through random adaptations for months now. And hasn’t anyone noticed that dogs, cats, horses, pigs, et cetera have stopped breeding true” (44)?

The early sections of the novel only hint at such chaos. It begins with Cedar seeking out her birth parents, discovering her birth mother, Mary Potts. Only after this relational table setting does the narrative rush into full blown overdrive.

Quickly, tense public interactions became underground fugitive interactions when the United States government toppled, and a theocratic system takes power, decreeing all pregnant women must be incarcerated for their own health.

“’I don’t want to either,’ Phil says. ‘But sooner or later it’s going to come to that. They’re offering rewards now for anyone who turns in a pregnant neighbor, acquaintance, family member, whatever. There’s billboards. Ads up on lampposts. It’s true” (85).

A Popular Dystopian Vision

A narrative clearly resembling Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Future Home of the Living God works in the shadows to paint a truly terrifying future where womanhood and the ability to carry a child not only becomes dangerous, it also becomes illegal.

And yet, Erdrich works diligently to make such actions believable. Even though the theocratic government’s decisions feel evil and authoritarian, they operate with clear internal logic. If humanity’s ability to bring new life in the world stops functioning, the vision for a future of human flourishing ceases to exist. Leadership would need to manage any avenue of continued existence. So, I return to the question of habeas corpus. Under what condition ought we to give up our rights? Given the terrifying world Erdrich creates, surely a time like that merits the most extreme measures. And yet, I find the decision making of Erdrich’s power structures to be morally deficient.

So, then what? Maybe humanity shouldn’t be worth saving if that’s how it must be saved.

Future Home of the Living God is an engaging read and another sterling example of Louise Erdrich’s literary greatness. Read her work!

Verdict: 4 out of 5

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