Future Home of the Living God Kept Me Up at Night

I didn’t go into Louise Erdrich’s latest novel Future Home of the Living God with the expectation that it would leave me so anxious about The Future that I had to read half of Archer’s Goon just to get myself to sleep. But you can see that this is my own error.

Future Home of the Living God

Cedar Songmaker is pregnant at a time when evolution has begun to run backward. She visits her biological Ojibwe family to inquire about any potential medical issues, but has yet to tell her adoptive Minnesota liberal parents that she’s expecting. As she’s wrestling with all of this, the country has begun to change at an ever-increasing pace, with pregnant women being called in to give birth in government-controlled centers. This is compulsory. If anyone sees a pregnant woman out in public, they are required to inform on them, which means that Cedar’s movements are strictly curtailed.

Remember when I invented the term process dystopia like a damn genius? Well it has come in handy a fair few times, and every time I read a book that fits that definition, I am like:

What a great coinage by me. Process dystopia refers to the kind of dystopian story where the world is in the process of falling apart. So it is not yet fallen apart, a la The Hunger Games. That is the case with Future Home of the Living God, and one criticism I’ve read of it is that Erdrich doesn’t spend enough time on worldbuilding. Certainly the details we see of Cedar’s world are fragmented, but number one,  it’s literary so I didn’t come here for the worldbuilding SORRY LITERARY FICTION BUT SFF IS BETTER AT THIS THAN YOU, and B of all, the worldbuilding is fragmented because Cedar’s access to information is fragmented. It contributes to a claustrophobic uncertainty — with a limited notion of what kind of present Cedar’s living in, we’re even more terrified about the future these characters will face.

Okay, I know your next question is “How does this book compare to The Handmaid’s Tale?” Here are some answers, broken down by category.

Scary too-real-ness: Tough call. The Handmaid’s Tale is more thorough and explicit about what the end product world looks like, whereas Future Home of the Living God leaves a lot to the imagination. On the other hand, I read Handmaid’s Tale during the Bush presidency, and things are scarier and realer now. So, Future Home probably wins in this category for AT LEAST the duration of Trump’s term in office. We’ll reassess if American democracy survives thereafter.

Scary misogyny: Handmaid’s Tale contains way more focused and horrifying misogyny, which is why it’s unlikely I will ever have the fortitude to reread it. The villains in Future Home of the Living God are frequently women themselves, people who have failed in bravery and integrity when they faced the test. The specter of rape doesn’t hover over this book, and that was a relief to me. So, Future Home of the Living God wins this category too.

(“Jenny, you made the scarier book the winner in the first category, and you made the less scary book the winner in the second category, how does that make sense?” I AM THE BOSS OF THIS BLOG, SO SIT DOWN AND ACCEPT THE VERDICTS YOU’RE GIVEN.)

[SPOILERS] Hopefulness: Uh, Handmaid’s Tale wins this category. Future Home of the Living God ends in a dark, dark place. On the other hand, whereas Offred is (am I remembering this right?) deeply cynical throughout the book, Erdrich gives her heroine a perverse and persistent hope that things are going to be all right, despite all evidence to the contrary. It helps some. The ending of this book is still incredibly dark. Be prepared.

[SPOILERS] Babies dying on page in a lengthy and brutal birth scene: Look, I don’t know, it’s been a while since I read The Handmaid’s Tale. Do we see any babies dying in childbirth? Not that I remember! But the scene in Future Home of the Living God goes on for kind of a while (it’s not Cedar’s baby). So I’m calling The Handmaid’s Tale the winner in this category, and you can correct me if I’m wrong.

So, it’s a tie. I thought both books were really good, and they both upset me so much it’s unlikely I’ll ever reread them. But I’d reread Future Home of the Living God before I’d reread The Handmaid’s Tale because it turns out the only category that mattered is I’m goddamn tired of reading about rape. Thank you and good night.

25 thoughts on “Future Home of the Living God Kept Me Up at Night”

  1. First of all, A+ gif here.

    I was conflicted about this book throughout most of it. I felt like it wasn’t literary enough to be read as literary fiction and not dystopian enough to read as purely that, either. I think you’re right on about the world-building, but I think life had already primed me to immediately insert myself into this world and feel terrified — it’s the same reason I had such trouble watching Handmaid’s Tale. Turns out that I’m “goddamn tired of reading about rape,” too.

  2. Mmm, yeah, not going to read this one. I don’t think I’m going to see The Handmaid’s Tale and I certainly won’t reread that book. Pretty sure I’m done with dystopias, particularly misogynistic ones. If it’s fantasy, it can be hopeful, people, okay?! Sticking my head back in the sand now.

  3. Um. I don’t know if I could read about babies dying.

    Yesterday I joked to my daughter that Trump had clearly stolen the Delorean, a la Biff, and created his own future that we’re all now stuck in. (This is a joke I stole.) She countered with the apparently true information that Dystopian Biff was partially based on Trump in the first place. O.O

    1. STOP IT. Can that be true? That is WILD and I have just fact-checked it and I am blown away by this information, seriously. I am going to tell this to everyone and also probably rewatch Back to the Future 2, though it is my least favorite. Wait or maybe it will be too confronting.

      Anyway. The baby death scene is quite long, so yeah, if you sort of feel like you can’t face it, you are likely correct. This review has scared off more people than I intended!

      1. I KNOW. I was also blown away. Also the second movie is the one I haven’t really seen so I hardly even know what I’m talking about…

  4. Hi! I just found your blog and I love it! I am still grappling with my reaction to Future Home…I loved so many things about it but I also felt like so many other things fell flat. I loved Cedar and so many of the characters, but I felt like the foreshadowing didn’t follow through on its hinted-at promises (WAS she carrying a sort-of Savior? and if so, what kind, biblical or Yeatsian?) Handmaid’s Tale is one of my favorite novels so I never compare it to anything else…but Mother seemed like she would fit within that world if it was a more technology-based place.

    Anyway, I will be back, love your blog!

    1. Aw, you’re so sweet! Did you think the book was foreshadowing a Savior sort of thing? My mother actually asked about that and I said “no no the baby’s just normal” but maybe I’m insane. It was just that she happened to have a healthy baby, right? (I would be easily persuaded that I am mistaken about this.)

  5. Not my cup of tea – I read to live other lives, but I want them to be lives I might have wanted to live, had things been different.

    Limited energy for reading while writing, so I choose the uplifting ones, the ones with hope however tiny the light at the end of the tunnel. Which explains why I don’t want to read The Road, either. Maybe after I finish all the good ones, and reread Jane Eyre and Dune and…

  6. I read one Louise Erdich book a while back – I can’t remember the title, but it was essentially about a man and woman who were married and hated each other and it was SUPER depressing – and didn’t like it one bit, so I pretty much dismissed this one based on that experience. Should I read it? Have you read more of her books – is the writing similar in all of them?

    1. Ummmm let’s see. I have read two of her books now, and both of them were quite sad. I wouldn’t say they were depressing in the way of like, the author was being superfluously grim, you know? But they were both quite sad. What was the other book of hers you read?

  7. Your review of this book gives me some things to think about. I agree that sometimes it’s scarier when we don’t know everything about the world they’re in. This is how it would be for us, if we were in it. I love your comparison to The Handmaid’s Tale!

  8. The SFF lover in me wanted more world-building. If you are setting your world in some sort of psuedo-realistic, futuristic world, you damn well better explain how this world differs from my own. I wanted to see dinosaurs, dammit!

    All kidding aside, this was a freaking scary book. I don’t think I could reread it, but I have reread The Handmaid’s Tale as recently as last year. Now that you have read this one, you need to read Red Clocks. It is another process dystopian novel involving women’s reproductive rights. I would love to see you do a comparison of the three!

  9. I’m actually reeling from Jean’s revelation about Biff. But bravely typing on anyway. I find that dystopian novels are books that I am glad exist and which I believe perform an important function and yet I cannot bear to read them.

    (OK, I HAVE read a few.)

    How do you do it? Doesn’t reading them just make you want to curl up in a corner and weep? That’s the effect they have on me…

  10. I’m interested in this book, but I’ve read such mixed things about it that I’m not excited enough to put it at the top of my list. I have heard from a lot of readers who wanted more building and I really like good world building, but your review made me recognize that perhaps this is just a different sort of book that could be good without that.

  11. first, perfect gif usage. WELL DONE. Also this sound good and very upsetting and I will prob not be reading this, at least not for some time

  12. I really need to read a Louise Erdich novel. I’ve heard so many great things about her writing. This book sounds intense and very interesting.

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