Future Home of the Living God

Future Home of the Living GodFuture Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“Future Home of the Living God” is told in an epistolary style set in a future U.S. in which nature is turning on itself and going through some sort of evolution. Animals are changing into new species and for some reason most women are not able to get pregnant, carry a pregnancy to term, or deliver a baby that can live. There’s a small group of women who are able to achieve a viable pregnancy and this becomes the main conflict for our protagonist, Cedar. Intermixed with this ongoing evolution (de-evolution?), Cedar is discovering her roots. She grew up in an adopted household in Minneapolis with White parents, but she is of Ojibwe heritage. Because she’s pregnant, she wants to meet her biological parents to find out if there’s any genetic issues she should be aware of.

The plot unfolds as diary entries Cedar writes based on her experiences with the issues I’ve mentioned above. The diary is something she compiling to give to her baby. One the one hand, it made the book stand out telling us the story from a limited, disjointed chronology. On the other hand, it made me frustrated and didn’t pay out the way I was expecting. By keeping the diary there’s a very personal feel to the book and it makes an empathetic read. You know all about Cedar and what she’s thinking or feeling. It makes us feel like we are the baby she was writing to. On the other hand, because it’s such a limited perspective, there’s things happening in Cedar’s world that didn’t make sense to me, but because they did for her, she doesn’t take the time to explain them. It’s like watching a movie of Cedar’s life, while she’s standing right in front of you. You get to see some of the world, but the main focus is really just on Cedar herself.

One of the themes I appreciated about this book is that we get to experience Cedar’s Ojibwe family as people. I’ve said it before but I don’t think there’s a good representation of Native Americans in literature. Too often they’re portrayed as victims and something that White liberals should pity and cry over. In “Future Home” there’s no victimization. Cedar and her family use their situation and do what they can in their chaotic world, and do it very well.

I enjoyed this book very much, it just didn’t live up to what I was expecting from the beginning. It’s definitely a very unique book and great for book clubs as it spawns a lot of discussion.

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“LaRose” begins with a tragedy. In an effort to make this tragedy right, Landreaux Irons, architect of the tragedy, offers his son LaRose to the Ravitch family. The Irons and Ravitch families have a long history as Nola Ravitch and Emmaline Irons are half-sisters. Landreaux and Peter Ravitch are hunting buddies. The rest of the novel explores what happens to all of the characters’ lives as a result of this event. LaRsoe

I struggled with this book, which isn’t often the case. The writing was done so well that I stopped seeing words and I was transported to the Ojibwe reservation in North Dakota and could see the sights, sounds, and smells. The problem was that the characters were too real, the problems too connected my own world, that someone like me who likes to escape from these things couldn’t with a book like this.

The plot itself was also a hurdle for me to leap in order to understand the masterful storytelling. The first ninety percent of the novel left me with a headache trying to figure out why I was being exposed to seemingly random events in the lives of some very complicated characters. It didn’t make sense until I had a conversation with my wife in which I was complaining about all of this when she asked me, “how do you tell the story of a life or how do you tell the ripple effects of a major event in a close-knit community?” Suddenly it all made much more sense.

I had to embrace the chaos and disjointed connections because that’s what life is. There’s not a beginning to end line that connects our births to our deaths and that’s not how we connect our lives to others’. Erdrich reminds us that no one’s life is unconnected from someone else’s. This was both an unsettling and beautiful reminder of what it means to be part of a community.

The Birchbark House

I had originally read Louise Erdrich’s The Birchbark House back in June 2014 when I was looking at teaching more literature written by and about Native Americans. I decided to revisit the book because I thought it would work with a new unit I was putting together for my American Literature course.  Unfortunately, I read the book too late to make into booklists for this school year.  This wasn’t too much of a loss because I’m still torn about whether to actually teach it or not.Birchbark

One of the main problems is that the main character is much younger than my students and the point-of-view is very much tied to her age.  While books like To Kill a Mockingbird have juvenile protagonists, the point-of-view seems more geared towards adults.  The Birchbark House seems much more geared towards middle-school.  The devil’s advocate voice in my head argues that sometimes it’s ok for high schoolers to read things below their reading levels seeing as how adults do it all the time.  So I’m torn.

The other problem is, I’m looking for a work that fits into the time before the Europeans arrived.  The Birchbark House is after the Europeans arrive, specifically the voyageurs. I’m trying to contrast the way of life for the Native Americans prior to the European invasion and then compare that to their way of life after.  It feels like there’s a big hole in American literature where we don’t talk about this monumental shift.  I feel like all the students get is Squanto, Sakagawea, and maybe Chief Joseph.

I’m asking a lot of The Birchbark House, and it’s not the book’s fault that it can’t meet the standards.  It is a good book and it does give voice to an important time and place in Native American literature.  Next year I may just teach it and see how it goes.  There’s no harm in trying, right?