We Fucked It Up

Louise Erdrich
Louise Erdrich; drawing by Siegfried Woldhek

Louise Erdrich’s novels, many of them set on Native American reservations, take seriously Faulkner’s notion that the past is neither dead nor buried nor, even, past. In the words of Erdrich herself, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa and the author of more than twenty books, “history works itself out in the living.” Her most recent books—The Plague of Doves (2008), The Round House (2012), and LaRose (2016)form a loose trilogy that share a setting (a reservation on the Ojibwe territory of North Dakota), characters (including Mooshum, the randy ancient patriarch in Doves and Round House), and a preoccupation with inheritance.

Violins, grudges, memories, and tribal membership are passed down through generations, striking each recipient with the full force of their origins, sometimes even transcending the borders of one novel to reach into the next. Oppression, too, is imparted: the lives that Erdrich depicts are fundamentally shaped by continuing injustices that many Americans—living on stolen land and reaping the rewards of stolen labor, while embracing an ideology of meritocracy that assures us that we deserve our privilege—prefer to think of as strictly historical. When the federal legal system fails, in Erdrich’s books, to recompense Native victims of crimes, justice is pursued outside the law. A boy kills his mother’s rapist; an accidental murderer lends his own child to the grieving parents of the boy that he killed.

The Future Home of the Living God shares the concerns of Erdrich’s earlier work, but transposes them into an imaginary future. The history that “works itself out in the living” is our present moment, and the crime that is extra-legally punished is the violence that humans have wreaked on the environment. For millennia we’ve manipulated the planet to our benefit—cutting down forests, drilling deep, mockingly camouflaging mountains of trash and cell towers with grass and leaves—and now it is seeking revenge. “Mother earth,” one character says, “has a clear sense of justice. You fuck me up, I fuck you up.”

This new novel, Erdrich’s first explicit foray into nonrealist fiction, is the diary of Cedar Hawk Songmaker, addressed to her unborn child and written with the intention of documenting a momentous period in history. “Apparently,” Cedar tells us in her first entry, “our world is running backward. Or forward. Or maybe sideways, in a way as yet ungrasped.” The novel remains frustratingly vague about what exactly this entails, but according to DNA experts whom Cedar watches on television, “small-celled creatures and plants have been shuffling through random adaptations for months now.” This shuffling is apparently compromising the reproductive process. For some time dogs have stopped “breeding true,” and rumors abound of similar problems in humans—a stark concern for Cedar, who begins the book four months pregnant.

Against the novel’s background of genetic rearrangement, Cedar experiences an upheaval of her own, as she visits her Ojibwe birth mother for the first time. Growing…

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