I finished reading Louise Erdritch’s Future Home Of the Living God this morning. It took me a while to get into it—about a hundred pages or so, at which point I was on the verge of putting it down and not finishing it—but I am glad that I stuck with it. I ended up really like the book, although it is rather harrowing at time.
While this book bears some resemblance (or at least conceptual kinship) to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, it is essentially a retelling of the nativity story, but set amidst the onset of an ecological and political dystopia. It is told in a series of journal entries written by a woman names Cedar, who was born to Native American parents but adopted as an infant by a liberal caucasian couple. Cedar is now pregnant with her own child (the father is absent at the novel’s opening), with ecological and potential societal collapse putting her future and that of her unborn baby at risk.
This setup provides Erdritch with a pretty fascinating set of variables within which to tell her story—sexual and gender politics, faith and religion, and complicated family dynamics. The case of characters is broad but not huge, and they all serve a purpose in the story and are well-constructed. In a less well-written book, many of them would have been stock characters there only to provide exposition and move the plot along. Here they are all interesting and have their own motivations.
What I like most about this book is Cedar’s ongoing struggle to justify her belief that everything is going to turn out okay despite all the really horrible stuff going on around (and sometimes to) her. This question is one that could easily become tedious and silly were it taken up by someone too naive or self-centered to be aware of events outside their own immediate experiences or of other people’s suffering. For Cedar, though, it is a question of deep religious meaning.
I feel like it is a challenge that we all face, at least those of us that are able to think beyond what is happening directly in front of us. if we have good things in our lives for which we are thankful, how do we appreciate them while not forgetting that many people are not (through no fault of their own) as fortunate as we are? If we are suffering, where do we find hope? If we do find hope, how do we know that it real and tangible, not some phantom at which we are grasping in order to get through our day?
If I have a complaint about the book, it would be the nature of the ecological disaster Erdritch uses to create the backdrop for the plot. She does not go into a lot of detail (which is probably for the best), only mentioning here and there that evolution has begun “running backward.” I could not help but think of the dreadful Star Trek: The Next Generation episode in which the Enterprise crew starts devolving. Nothing quite that silly here, but I would rather Erdritch had left it vague about what was going on. That is a relatively minor nitpick, though, and did not impact my enjoyment of the book in any significant way.