on The Passing of Ursula K. le Guin
Book Review: Heather, The Totality by Matthew Weiner

Book Review: Future Home of the Living God

I'm not a fan of the traditional western genre. The cowboys-and-Indians style stories, where everything is cut and dried, where white people are good and Indians are savages, except for when they are noble savages, and anyway you can clearly tell the goodness/badness of people based on the color of their hat (if not their skin).  This holds true for books and movies. I know I am oversimplifying the genre, but there is so much potential for caricature and stereotype that I'm not willing to find the gems I'm certain exist within it.
At the same time, I love historical novels about the American West. A historical novel is different from a western, even if they are set in the same time period; they each have different goals and I align more clearly with the historical. I think it strives to create a truer account of the things that happened, and I want to understand and even to witness (in a bookish sort of way) the experiences of history. I took a course on Native American literature when I was in college, but my affection for the people who lived her first has always been with me. I've always been bothered by thinking of their land being taken away. Even when I was a little kid reading the Little House books, I found myself wondering at how the Native Americans were portrayed (please note: In a blatantly obvious my-psyche-is-really-in-charge-here sort of way, I just had to correct the word "portrayed," as I had originally written "betrayed") in those stories. That lonely camp with the beads!
So I have a deep appreciation for the novels of Louise Erdrich. She writes about contemporary Native American lives in a way that makes the reader realize, with each book, that their lives are as much a part of our current culture as anyone else's. She doesn't present them like stock western characters but as real, vibrant people who continue to exist and to be a part of our nation.
Future home of the living godSo when I read, a few months ago, that she was releasing a dystopian novel? Mind. Blown. Pow! I couldn't wait to read Future Home of the Living God, which is a story set in the very near future of America. For some unknown reason, the world is beginning to de-evolve. To move backward in a genetic sense. Not just humans, but everything, animals and plants and trees. But yes: humans. Something is changing in the formation of unborn babies that drastically reduces the chances of the mother surviving the birth and of the baby being "normal."
On the cusp of this happening, Cedar Hawk Songmaker, adopted daughter of two liberal, idealistic parents in Minnesota, is heading toward the Ojibwe reservation. She's just discovered she's pregnant, and that news plus the vague hints in the media about the changes cause her to want to meet her biological family. 
Really: A dystopian novel and an adoption story? I could hardly love this idea more.
In a sense, this isn't really about adoption. It is about how quickly things can disintigrate; by the time Cedar is roughly three months pregnant, America is a dangerous place for pregnant women to live. There is a mandated program, wherein all pregnant women must turn themselves in and live at a hospital until their babies are born. Cedar sees the ominous tones in this, so she hides out in her house, eventually discovered by the father of her baby, trying to avoid being arrested. There are also optional "womb volunteer" programs, wherein fertile women can volunteer to carry the embryos from fertility clinics. Women lose all of their rights; the government is dissolved and reformed to follow biblical laws, and an underground railroad of sorts springs up to assist women who are trying to flee.
I don't want to tell the story in my review; the story itself is really, really good, and experiencing it as it unfolds through Cedar's perspective was one of my favorite reading experiences I've had in a long time. The characters are interesting and well-developed; the mother/daughter tension between Cedar and her adopted mom rings true, and one of the side characters, Eddy, might possibly be one of my all-time favorite people I've found in a book. There is a harrowing birth story in a cave, daring escapes, and moments of pure strangeness created by the changing world (a saber-tooth cat eating a chocolate lab, for example).
Plus, it is beautifully written.  Had I read my own copy, I would've been going crazy with the underlining. 
I would expect nothing else from Louise Erdrich, and I read it in three fast gulps.
But when I finished it, I felt strangely...disappointed. None of the narrative lines felt finished.​ For example, Cedar's baby, who one doctor has hinted is a normal, regular human being, is due to be born around Christmas, and there are other symbolic suggestions that connect her baby to the story of Christ's birth. (Her birthmother named her Mary, for example, and she comes from a long line of Marys; the conception of her baby hints that he/she was fathered by an angel; even that birth in the cave, which suggests a connection to Christ being born in the stable.)  What kind of savoir will this be—truly the "light of the world," like Cedar thinks, or some rough beast from "The Second Coming"? I didn't care, one way or the other, but I wanted the story to fulfill the foreshadowing throughout the text—and it didn't. I felt like the book didn't fulfill its potential; it felt rushed and like it needed another 100 pages or so.
Every dystopia that is about women/childbearing/fertility ends up being compared to Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, and Future Home of the Living God is no exception. Which really drives me nuts. Not because it's one of my favorite books in the sense that "nothing can be this good," but because it's one of my favorite books in the sense of "comparing one of these to each other is pointless and ridiculous." Yes, the overarching topics are the same, but the themes are different, the constructed society, the problems. Do they get to the same point, that despite so many people claiming we don't need feminism anymore, we will always need feminism because look, look how easy it is to lose everything we've gained? Yes, but that is only one of the points each book makes.
Plus I'm commited to the idea that it takes a true genius to write a dystopian novel that doesn't disappointment in some way or another. (Yes, even The Handmaid's Tale.
I wish it drew to a more powerful conclusion. If you've read my blog for very long you know I don't need a book to have a happy ending. I actually prefer a sad ending, or a conflicted one. I don't even need all of the answers. But I do want an ending that fulfills whatever promises the book has made throughout the story, and I think that's why Future Home disappointed me, in the end: because in the end, the story just sort of fades away. It fades away beautifully...but I wanted —no, I expected—more. I'm glad I read it...but I will remain disappointed that it turned out smaller than it could've been. 


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