Winner of the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for her novel The Night Watchman, Louise Erdrich is one of America’s most respected living writers. Much of her fiction (including The Night Watchman) focuses specifically on the past experiences of Native Americans, but those experiences are somewhat secondary to the main focus of Erdrich’s novel Future Home of the Living God, which focuses on attempts of the authorities in a future dystopian America to administer and control women’s reproductive processes. As such, the novel seems newly and almost shockingly relevant years after its publication, given events occurring in the early 2020s. The same, of course, has often recently been said of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale, itself made newly relevant both by recent public events and by a successful television adaptation. Indeed, given the ongoing power of Atwood’s novel, to which Erdrich’s has been so often compared, Ron Charles asked in his contemporary review of Future Home of the Living God whether we really need “another Handmaid’s Tale” at this point. His answer, not surprisingly, is “yes,” though he is lukewarm about whether Erdrich has truly delivered what we need, given the paucity of details about just what is going on in the future society of her novel. Of course, given ongoing attempts by the Christian right in America to seize control of women’s reproductive systems, it seems clear that Erdrich’s novel is now more relevant—and more needed—than ever.
Indeed, had it not been published five years earlier, it would be easy to read Future Home as a direct response to the right-wing Christian zealotry that has threatened women’s control of their bodies due to specific political developments in 2022, especially the repeal of Roe v. Wade by a right-wing extremist Supreme Court. Writing in 2021, Sherryl Vint notes the then-embattled situation of Roe v. Wade and discusses Future Home as an illustration of the way in which the movement to overturn Roe was driven by an ideology in which “unmarked embryos are valued as people while still only the size of a pea, while the lives of adult people of color are devalued and disposable” (111).
Erdrich is a brilliant prose stylist, and her writing pops and crackles with energy, so her treatment of the issue of women’s reproductive rights in Future Home is particularly effective in a literary sense. In a broader cultural sense, her novel adds Native American cultural perspectives that can only enrich her consideration of such issues. Granted, Erdrich is very vague about exactly what is happening in the near-future American society of her novel, and that might well be a problem, though it is certainly justifiable in a literary sense, given that her narrator, Cedar Hawk Songmaker, doesn’t know what is going on, either. However, Erdich’s presentation of the issue of reproductive rights within the context of climate change and environmental degradation, with the added element of a Native American cultural perspective, is a particular enhancement that goes beyond The Handmaid’s Tale and thus constitutes a much-needed addition to contemporary literature.
The lack of information about the climate changes that are clearly underway in Future Home does not necessary render the novel ineffective as a commentary on or warning about climate change. Kyle Bladow usefully characterizes Future Home of the Living God as “oblique cli-fi,” noting that it is a novel “whose catastrophes are not primarily figured as climate change but whose contemporary readers cannot help but consider them in this light, given the pervasive framing of climate change as catastrophe. However, any motivation to read Future Home as cli-fi should not lose sight of its singular nature as a departure from Erdrich’s ‘standard’ literary fiction, not to mention the novel’s political significance both as a response to the 2016 US presidential election and in its calls for reproductive justice and land restoration” (133). Indeed, Future Home stands, among other things, as a strong reminder that climate change hovers in the background of anything and everything that happens in the world at this point in history.
Future Home of the Living God is narrated in the first person by Cedar, mostly in the form of journal entries that she addresses to her future child, with whom she is pregnant throughout the novel until she gives birth near the end. Initially, Cedar believes that she is a full-blooded Native American, born to Ojibwe parents but adopted at birth by almost stereotypically green, vegan, “white Minneapolis liberals.” (In one of the text’s many ironies, meanwhile, “Cedar Hawk Songmaker” is her “white” name; her birth name as an Ojibwe was the terribly mundane “Mary Potts.”) It eventually turns out, though, that Cedar’s adoptive father is also her biological father, so that her two families have been intermixed all along—and become even more so in the plot of the novel, as they both work to help Cedar evade the authorities who seek to seize control of her and her pregnancy in this oppressive society. Cedar’s personal experiences tie together the entire narrative, which is presented to us entirely from her perspective. In the meantime, though, big things that are afoot on a larger scale form an important part of the background to Cedar’s story. Cedar, though, does not entirely understand what is going on in the larger story. In fact, it appears, that no one fully understands the situation, which seems to involve a large-scale reaction to climate change that has essentially caused evolution to start running backward (or perhaps simply to go haywire).
In this sense, Future Home is a sort of degeneration narrative and draws upon fears and anxieties that have plagued Western society since the late nineteenth century. Erdrich’s narrative, though, is unusual in the way it ties this degeneration specifically to climate change. Erdrich’s version of the narrative also has a special allegorical dimension. She had begun writing this novel years earlier, then abandoned it, only to resume writing it after the election of Donald Trump to the presidency in 2016, his declaration of a “make America great agenda” clearly signaling to Erdrich that the United States was in danger of reverting politically to an earlier time when women were still struggling to win many rights that they now seemed in danger of losing. The evolutionary step backward in Future Home thus parallels the political step backward taken by America with the election of Trump. And, of course, after the disastrous fall of Roe v. Wade in 2022, Erdrich’s fears came to seem all the more urgent and justified.
Future Home also extends its vision of degeneration beyond humanity, including not only the aberrant evolution of humans but all other species as well—with birds, for example, seemingly reverting to the reptilian state of their evolutionary ancestors. However, Erdrich’s most striking innovation is to focus her degeneration narrative particularly on pregnancy and childbirth and to extend her concerns with regard to humanity beyond those of the original degeneration narratives of more than a century before, which focused exclusive on concerns about the possible devolution of white humans. Future Home, though, reminds us that evolution involves all colors of humans—but also all forms of life on earth.Indeed, one of the main messages delivered by the motif of evolution run amok in Future Home is that nature is far larger and more complex than humans typically realize. Thus, while Erdrich goes out of her way to provide some scientific details that make the evolution motif in her novel seem believable, one of the main points is that science, the best tool humans have for understanding the natural world, might still have not comprehended just how rich and strange that natural world can sometimes be. Importantly, though, this aspect of the novel is not aimed exclusively, or even primarily, at the limitations of science. Like most things in this novel, this motif is designed primarily to deliver a political message, arguing that the kinds of dominative ideologies that have driven phenomena such as patriarchy and colonialism are based on the confident assumption that humans can understand, dominate, and control their world (including other humans). Future Home suggests, though, that the world might still have a few tricks up its sleeve, as might the human groups—such as women and colonized/indigenous peoples—who have traditionally suffered at the hands of dominative ideologies.
A key aspect of the backward evolution that is sweeping the world of Future Home is that many babies being born are not fully “human” but have mutated to what is being interpreted as a prehuman state. As a result, much attention in this society is focused on attempts to preserve the human race by exerting control over the reproductive process to try to ensure that fully evolved human babies continue to be born. Any attempts to exert social control over the reproductive process is inherently problematic, but in this case (in a motif that clearly echoes The Handmaid’s Tale) the situation becomes even more sinister because political power in this society seems to be increasingly in the hands of Christian zealots who have little or no respect for women or for women’s rights to control their own bodies. Thus, pregnant women are rounded up for mandatory testing and are eventually confined in what are essentially prisons (many of the facilities are literally in former prisons) so that their pregnancies can be carefully monitored. Moreover, this sort of control eventually extends to virtually all women of child-bearing age, who are becoming liable to forced impregnation and childbearing as incubation sites for stores of sperm, eggs, and even frozen embryos. Meanwhile, priority is given to the health of newborn infants even though the lives of women are increasingly imperiled during childbirth.
Indeed, for reasons that are not made entirely clear in the novel—but which presumably have to do with the mutated nature of the babies that are being born—the authorities in the birth centers in which women are increasingly being incarcerated in the novel place all of their emphasis on the infants, regarding them as more important than the mothers, who are expected to sacrifice their lives in childbirth if necessary. In the light of the anti-abortion legislation sweeping the United States in the second half of 2022—much of which would require women to bring their pregnancies to term and to give birth, even if doing so would endanger the welfare, or even the life, of the mother—this aspect of Erdrich’s novel seems chillingly prescient, reminding us of just how uncomfortably close to our contemporary reality the dystopian conditions of the novel really are.
Most of the plot of Future Home involves Cedar’s attempts to evade capture, her subsequent capture and incarceration in a pregnancy center, her struggles in that center (followed by a daring escape), and her life on the run after escaping from custody, before finally being recaptured, seemingly for good. This focus makes for a compelling narrative, made especially effective because Cedar is such an appealing protagonist (thanks, of course, partly to the quality of “her”—i.e., Erdrich’s—prose in telling her story). What is important, though, is the larger issue of what is going on in this near-future America, in which it is clear that the extreme experiences undergone by Cedar are not unusual but are, in fact, quite typical in a society in which women in general have lost the right to control their own bodies. (We only see localized conditions in Minnesota, but there are areas of the country where it is easy to imagine that conditions for women would be even worse.)
It is true, as Charles notes in his review, that Erdrich presents very few details about exactly what is going on either biologically or politically in this future America. As Eddy, Cedar’s Ojibwe stepfather, notes when he first meets her, “The world as we know it is coming to an end and nobody knows what the hell is going on or how our species is going to look four months from now” (30). What we do know from the novel seems very much in tune with certain trends that were already well underway when the novel was written and that have developed even further by the 2020s. Much power in this society seems to have been seized by religious extremists, operating in opposition to a still-secular federal government that has apparently lost most of its real power, even though it continues to function in ways that are not made clear in the novel. We only get glimpses, though the overall political situation does seem to have created a power vacuum that potentially presents an opportunity for Native Americans to retake some of the lands that had previously been taken from them. Otherwise, the exact political situation in the America of the novel is unclear, though we do get snippets of information, as when Cedar learns that the religious zealots who have seized most local power are taking steps to announce the establishment of a new Christian Nationalist regime by doing things such as renaming all of the streets after Biblical verses, a step of the kind that is often taken in postrevolutionary societies in order to announce the beginning of an entirely new era. However, we also learn that the U.S. Postal Service refuses to accept these new Biblical street names. Thus, Cedar’s problematic husband Phil informs her that she still lives at her old street address “according to the U.S. Postal Service. They’re still operating under a secular postmaster general. Otherwise, you live on Proverbs 10:7” (119). Indeed, Cedar’s mail carrier, Hiro, her main point of contact with the federal government, emerges as one of the heroes of the novel, helping her to evade capture and captivity by the new Christian authorities at several points.
Despite the lack lack of details, Future Home is very firmly situated within the political realities of the time of its publication, with subsequent events making it even more relevant to the real world. For example, Erdrich does establish two crucial ingredients that make this novel especially relevant to conditions in the real world of America in the 2020s. For one thing, the large-scale attempt in the novel to deprive women of their reproductive rights is clearly religious in its motivation and almost entirely controlled by religious extremists. Thus, while the concern over preservation of the human race might at first seem reasonable, the particular way in which it is being done in the novel is unreasonable and reprehensible. Moreover, a closer look shows that what is involved here is not some sort of medically valid attempt to deal with potential birth defects in the mutated babies but a simple (and rather ugly) fear of Otherness. As Vint notes, “The parallel Erdrich constructs between the targeting and detention of racialized minorities and the threat perceived in women pregnant with another kind of human reveals once again how foundationally the liberal humanist dispositif is a category of colonial whiteness and, further, how concerns about the reproductive futurity of the species collapse into anxieties about the reproduction of current hegemonies. That is, both express anxiety about the ethnic demography of the nation-state’s future” (134).
In particular, the Christian-driven dystopia of the novel mobilizes to repress the propagation of the mutated infants in what ultimately amounts to a version of the attitude widely known as “Replacement Theory,” allegorizing the widespread fear among white Christian nationalist extremists that the United States (which they view as an inherently white Christian nation) is in danger of being overrun by dangerous hordes of nonwhite and nonChristian newcomers who immigrate to the United States in alarming numbers and then multiply at spectacular rates once they arrive here, thus threatening to “replace” white Christians as the dominant demographic group in America. And this notion that nonwhite and nonChristian people somehow have preternaturally high birth rates is one that hovers unspoken in the margins of Future Home throughout, given the centrality of pregnancy and childbirth to the entire narrative. This narrative, after all, is all about certain groups seizing control of the reproductive process in an attempt to ensure that the “right” kind of infants are born—which, of course, also implies that the “wrong” kind are not born.
We get few details about the actual agenda of the groups in control of the birthing centers in which Cedar is incarcerated. We do, however, get a hint when we learn that a militant oppositional group is running a competing system of “Future Home Reception Centers” in which they offer perks such as quality food to “womb volunteers” who agree to carry and give birth to embryos that they have liberated from frozen embryo storage centers. As this group explains in a statement that Cedar hears on the radio, “We took the leftovers. The embryos not labeled Caucasian. We’re going to have them all and keep them all. We’re not killing any. All are sacred” (105). The implication seems quite clear: if birthing is left in the hands of white Christian nationalist authorities, there is a very good chance that embryos with certain (nonwhite) racial characteristics will be destroyed, rather than cared for.
The Native American perspective that constantly inhabits Future Home of the Living God reminds us of how misguided this notion that America is inherently white and Christian really is. The land that is now the United States was dominated by people who were nonwhite and non-Christian for tens of thousands of years and has now been dominated (in reality, though not in the theory put forth in the founding of the United States) by white Christians for perhaps 300 years or less, depending on the specific region. Meanwhile, Cedar, who is a Christian (but a Catholic, whereas American Christian nationalism is dominated by Protestants) and very white-skinned (but half Ojibwe) is the very embodiment of the kind of hybridity that horrifies proponents of White Replacement Theory, who seek to maintain the purity of the White race and the dominance of the Protestant religion. Cedar, in short, stands in opposition to this kind of misguided quest for purity and single-minded fear of difference. After all, thanks to her own multi-racial and multi-cultural background, she understands the artificiality of distinctions that can oppose one group to another. Indeed, in the course of the novel she discovers that her own hybridity is even more complex than she had originally been led to believe, though of course the fact that her racial background turns out to be different than she had thought does not change who she is as a person. She also comes to understand just how shortsighted many people can be, mistaking the realities of one brief period of time for an potentially eternal verity that must be defended at all costs from “unnatural” developments. In one key moment in the text, Cedar entertains herself by watching animals in her backyard while she hides out from the authorities. Then, she observes a hawklike bird that has been mutated in apparently reptilian directions, perhaps reflecting a return to its evolutionary past. Yet she seems to identify with the hybrid nature of this “lizard-bird,” recognizing in its fluid movements, not monstrosity, but promise. She becomes lost in contemplation of the future, much as she had when she first saw an image of her embryo, experiencing “the same tranced awareness I experienced in the ultrasound room. I realize this: I am not at the end of things, but the beginning” (107).
To complicate matters still further, there is great irony in the fact that the mutations that are occurring in Future Home seem related (in some poorly understood way) to climate change and general changes in the natural environment, changes that have been brought about via hundreds of years of domination of the United States by white Christians. Native Americans were able to live in harmony with nature for tens of thousands; in a few hundred years of white Christian hegemony, that natural environment has been severely damaged. Most of the detail we get in the novel has to do with climate change and global warming. For example, Cedar, Minnesota born and bred, is a lover of the cold and the snow, yet she has seen the world around her change during her own lifetime to the point where snow and deep cold have essentially ceased to exist, even in Minnesota.
Bladow argues that Native American culture is well situated to deal with climate change because it is not about dominating and controlling the environment so much as it is about adapting to it. Thus, “despite what appears as a harrowing dismantling of biological reproduction and evolution, Indigenous characters in the novel find renewed purpose as adapting to the situation revivifies traditional practices. Although rampant environmental devastation threatens lifeways and bonds of reciprocity, Erdrich demonstrates how those responsibilities were never predicated upon fixed, unchanging environments but instead dynamically respond to them as characters seek right relationship with other beings” (131).
Granted, the events described in Future Home are not entirely consistent with the current scientific understanding of how either climate change or evolution actually proceeds. That, of course, is largely beside the point. For one thing, Future Home is a work of satire, not of realist fiction. It exaggerates and simplifies certain phenomena in order to bring them more clearly into focus. In addition, the text draws upon cultural traditions (such as Ojibwe storytelling) that do not necessarily obey the logic of Western scientific realism. Indeed, if one needs a label, it probably makes more sense to read Future Home as a work of magical realism than of science fiction (though the “magic” in this text refers to a disavowal of literal scientific realism more than a turn to the supernatural).
The impact of Ojibwe storytelling on the narrative of Future Home is certainly not obvious—as it would not be, given that Cedar has had relatively little contact with her “birth” culture. Similarly, the fact that Cedar is half-Ojibwe does not, at first, seem to be of paramount importance to the plot of Future Home. However, this aspect of the novel does allow Erdrich to weave the history of the genocidal assault on Native Americans and their culture into her narrative in a way that adds an important new dimension. Most obviously, this novel makes it quite clear that the kind of abusive and exploitative practices that have led to the collapse of the natural environment involve precisely the same sort of attitudes that make it possible to treat women essentially as breeding stock, to be used for the benefit of the powers that be without any consideration for their own rights. But the inclusion of Native Americans and their history in the narrative makes the point that this same exploitative attitude was central to that history as well, with the forces of white-dominated capitalist modernity treating the world as existing for their use and profit, with anything that stands in the way of unrestrained capitalist expansion (such as Native Americans or the natural environment) subject to co-optation or (if necessary) destruction.
Through all the troubling events of Future Home, Cedar remains devoted to bringing her pregnancy to term and to subsequently taking care of her baby. “I have seen a young woman in labor endure more pain than Christ did in his three-hour ordeal on the cross. She suffered continuously for twenty-four hours. And I have heard of labors lasting much longer. To bear this child, I will go through whatever pain I must” (247). At the end of the novel, she does successfully give birth but then loses consciousness when she is given a sedative. The infant is taken away, and Cedar has no idea what has become of it or even what its gender is, though she imagines the child to be a boy. Cedar, meanwhile, remains a captive, awaiting (Handmaid-like) forceable impregnation for the production of her next child. She addresses the final pages to the newborn infant, reminding “him” of the snows that once covered the northlands in the times before they were eliminated by global warming. Then she wonders what the future holds for her child: “Where will you be, my darling, the last time it snows on earth?” (332).
For Vint, this heartbreaking ending is actually a hopeful one, envisioning a possible future for humanity, or (more accurately) posthumanity, which (with evolution suddenly moving in odd and unpredictable directions) might at least potentially end up moving in a better direction. And the seeds of this notion are planted quite early in the novel, even in its title. Thus, early in Future Home of the Living God a pregnant Cedar travels to the reservation to visit her birth mother (for the first time) and to seek information about her biological heritage that mightbe relevant to the health of her child. This concern seems perfectly ordinary. However, as Cedar travels, she is filled with the sense that the world might be on the verge of entering a new era, poised on the “cusp between the now of things and the big, incomprehensible change to come” (15). Presumably, she feels this way because her own life is about the change in fundamental ways as she becomes a mother. Yet, on the way, she observes some “the end is nigh” type church billboards that seem even more apocalyptic and alarming than usual, suggesting a more fundamental kind of shift to a new era in the history of humanity. Cedar then observes a sign in an empty field reading “Future Home of the Living God.” This sign, presumably announcing the second coming of Christ, gives the novel its title, suggesting that it bears considerable significance.Of course, as the novel proceeds, we become increasingly aware of fundamental genetic and climatic changes that are announcing a new era that has doesn’t seem to have anything to do with Christianity, other than presenting an opportunity for Christian extremists to seize political power.. At the same time, there are symbolic markers throughout the text lend symbolic weight to this sign, as when the text carefully identifies Cedar with the Virgin Mary and her embryo (a “Christmas baby,” we are reminded) with Christ.
To an extent, Future Home (which, after all, ends with a question mark) is certain that different times are coming but is much less certain that those changes will necessarily be either good or bad. Cedar, after all, remains incarcerated for use as a breeding stock, and the last snow ever is envisioned as on the way. In this sense, the novel might be seen as being somewhat in the spirit of W. B. Yeats’s “The Second Coming” (1920), which similarly envisions a birth, like that of Christ, tied in apocalyptic fashion to a new era of human history. But the poem, like Erdrich’s novel, ends with a question, wondering “what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”
A closer reading of Future Home, however, shows that the novel accepts the inevitability of change and rejects the notion thatit can be avoided in any case, opening the way for a hopeful reading for any who would seek it. After all, the text reminds us that the evolution of the human race thus far has taken place in little more than an eyeblink in the larger scheme of things, and so should not be regarded as definitive. Moreover, the “American way” that many are taking such desperate measures to preserve was also the way that did so much damage to the natural environment, so forced changes in the way we live might ultimately be a good thing. Vint sees the metaphorical association of Cedar’s child with Christ as a sign that Cedar herself, at the end of the novel, still remains hopeful for the future. Noting Cedar’s reaction to the “Living God” sign, Vint argues that this reaction tells us that Cedar sees her coming child as a harbinger of a better future world in which humans will be able to live more in harmony with nature: “In this moment, Cedar means only the change to come in her own life, as she becomes a mother, but as the innovation this child embodies becomes clear, the change also comes to mean the transformation of humanity into something new, of our world from a fallow field into a cultivated lifeworld” (133). After all, Native Americans might be especially well positioned to deal with apocalypse as just another step in history. For them, apocalypse is not something that might be on the verge of happening; it is something that began long ago. As Eddy puts it early in the novel, “Indians have been adapting since before 1492 so I guess we’ll keep adapting” (32).
Atwood, Margaret, and Louise Erdrich. “Inside the Dystopian Visions of Margaret Atwood and Louise Erdrich.” Elle, 14 November 2017, http://www.elle.com/culture/books/a13530871/future-home-of-the-living-god. Accessed 28 July 2022.
Bladow, Kyle. “The Future That Haunts Us Now”: Oblique Cli-Fi and Indigenous Futurity.” Transmotion, vol. 7, no. 2, 2021, pp. 130–150.
Blend, Benay. “Rethinking Resistance: An Ecofeminist Approach to Anti-Colonialism in Louise Erdrich’s Future Home of the Living God, and Oreet Ashery and Larissa Sansour’s The Novel of Nonel and Vovel.” Ecofeminist Science Fiction: International Perspectives on Gender, Ecology, and Literature. Edited by Douglas A. Vakoch and Patrick D. Murphy, Routledge; 2021, pp. 171–88.
Charles, Ron. “Do We Need Another Handmaid’s Tale?” Washington Post, 13 November 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/do-we-need-another-handmaids-tale/2017/11/13/54d8be52-c88d-11e7-aa96-54417592cf72_story.html. Accessed 29 July 2022.
Erdrich, Louis. Future Home of the Living God. 2017. Harper Perennial, 2018.
Mootz, Kaylee Jangula. “The Body and the Archive in Louise Erdrich’s Future Home of the Living God.” Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, vol. 31, no. 2, 2020, pp. 263–76.
Vint, Sherryl. Biopolitical Futures in Twenty-First-Century Speculative Fiction. Cambridge University Press, 2021.
 The world of The Handmaid’s Tale does seem to have suffered some sort of unspecified environmental disaster, rendering large parts of the former United States (the portions now referred as “the colonies”) virtually uninhabitable. But very little emphasis is placed on this disaster in the plot of the novel.
 Erdrich has some additional fund with the same kind of irony when she introduces a woman of Asian ancestry as an important ally to Cedar. That woman, to Cedar’s obvious surprise, is named “Tia Jackson.” America is an extremely multicultural society.
 Erdrich has discussed this aspect of her novel in an interview with none other than Margaret Atwood.
 Much of this scientific explanation resides in Cedar’s suggestion that human DNA has somehow stored memories of past evolutionary stages, which are now being re-activated in unpredictable ways. See Mootz for a discussion of the novel that sees this motif as being more crucial to the novel than do I. For Mootz, this stored genetic information combines with Cedar’s desire to record her experiences in writing to offer a “lingering message that the result of an expanded Native archive and the archive of the body is a future for humanity, even if the world we now know ceases to exist” (273).
 This positive vision of the oft-criticized U.S. Postal Service, in many ways the one government entity that does the most to hold the U.S. together as a nation, has been seen before in postapocalyptic fiction. It is, in fact, one of the crucial ingredients in David Brin’s The Postman (1985), in which the postal system is a key to rebuilding a U.S. that has collapsed into barbarism.
 Benay Blend concludes that, in this novel, “the overwhelming tone is one of cynicism and despair beftting a text that creates a dystopian future world that a reader might recognize as now” (175). However, even Blend acknowledges that, while Cedar’s individual future might not look bright in the novel, there are signs that the Ojibwe as a whole might profit from the collapse of the prevailing American power structure.