As I mentioned on the main Minnesota page, this book didn’t seem like a great choice for my reading challenge, although it was an interesting read. For at least 80% of the book, the setting was mostly ignored–even though in the very beginning of the book the main character visits the reservation where her birth mother lives. But that last 20% or so had some lovely tidbits, and made me want to do a review.
I am reading my way across the USA–5 or so books from each state, with an emphasis on those where the setting becomes another character, or those which have something to teach us about the geography, history, and/or people of that state. We are just starting Minnesota, but Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich (Goodreads link) was not one of my main book choices.
I have to say, upfront, that I didn’t totally get what was going on with Erdrich’s dystopian premise in this book–maybe some integrated news clips would have helped. To some extent, I think that’s ok–it seemed like the characters didn’t either, which makes sense–in a breakdown of society like this it seems very realistic that it’s not necessarily clear as to what caused the crisis, and news about what’s going on gets increasingly difficult to obtain. Plus, the book is much more focused on Cedar’s individual experience rather than any sort of greater rebellion.
That said, however, I did really like Erdrich’s premise that the Native Americans would begin to take back their lands, starting with their shrinking reservations. I also really liked that it was just a quiet takeover–reincorporating the federal and state parklands that have infringed on the reservations, and the vacation lakefront property that has been sold off over time. This idea felt real to me. But it wasn’t a real focus of the book.
Erdrich’s book is more intent on Cedar’s journey into motherhood and her struggle to make that journey in a safe place rather than under government control in a prison/hospital. Due to the dystopian aspects, this introspection is more than usually focused on whether the baby will be healthy and whether Cedar will survive the birth. However, the book opens with Cedar, who has always known she was adopted from a Native American mother by her white, hippie parents, being contacted by her birth mother and traveling to the reservation to meet her.
Who are the Potts to suddenly decide to be my parents, now, when I don’t need them? Worse, who are they to have destroyed the romantic imaginary Native parents I’ve invented from earliest childhood, the handsome ones with long, both-sided braids, who died in some vague and suitably spiritual Native way—perhaps fasting themselves to death or sundancing to heatstroke or plunging off a cliff for love or being carried off by thunderbirds? Who were the Potts to keep on living their unremarkable lives without me, and to work in a Superpumper?
Erdrich has some fun making Cedar’s adoptive parents more “Indian” than the Native American birth mother and her family, (her adoptive name is Cedar Hawk Songmaker, while her birth name is Mary Potts!) and gives us some intriguing bits of information about the Lily of the Mohawks, Kateri Tekakwitha, who really is a Native American Catholic saint (quite a recent one; she was beatified in 1980 and canonized in 2012). I imagine it’s quite common among adopted children to romanticize their birth families, and Cedar admits to capitalizing on her Native American heritage to explain her differences to her peers.
Another place where Erdrich has some fun is with vaccinations–which is very relevant this year, with measles outbreaks in several parts of the country, including New York state and Washington state–79 individual cases in January alone. Erdrich points out, through Cedar, that Native Americans historically were more susceptible to diseases brought by the Europeans.
“Cedar.” “Yes?” “Did you get yourself vaccinated?” “Of course. When I was eighteen. For you, not vaccinating me was a class thing. Upper-class delusionals can afford to indulge their paranoias only because the masses bear the so-called dangers of vaccinations.”
I suppose, as the mother of a high-functioning autistic child who was/is fully vaccinated, I should, perhaps, address that particular elephant in the room. I do not believe or support the pseudo-science that claims that autism is “caused” by the MMR vaccination. Autism is simply how my son is wired, not the result of boosting his immune system to protect him from several serious diseases. He did not “change” after getting vaccinated. I agree with Cedar, although I think it’s more “upper class” as in “first world country,” not “upper class” as in “rich”–there are plenty of anti-vax-ers among the middle class too. But I digress…
We also get the occasional glimpse of Minnesota, like this tidbit about Phil, the father of Cedar’s baby (and, for those who are interested, you can see exactly what Erdrich is talking about on this practical joke website):
Like so many Minnesota boys, Phil was raised on dairy products bearing the image of the Land O’Lakes Butter Maiden. She is the logo on the waxed cardboard one-pound butter box, a lovely, voluptuous Native girl kneeling in a lakey landscape, holding out a dish of butter. Like so many Minnesota boys, Phil folded her knees up to make breasts.
And when Cedar is holed up in her small Minneapolis house, we get a little view from her window to her back yard, with some lovely images (including some birds!):
I see the birds that come to feed on the purple fruit of two large mulberry trees. I’ve often thought of cutting down these trees. They drop buckets of berries in the grass and all August the yard smells like wine. Now I’m glad I didn’t. Maybe next year, if there is one, I can dry the berries out. Maybe I can gather them at night. I see squirrels flow up and down the oak tree that might provide, come to think of it, an emergency source of food in the fall if I can figure out what to do with the acorns. … Occasionally, a deer wanders in. I see rabbits, chipmunks, several varieties of woodpecker, neighborhood cats, finches, robins, nuthatches, sparrow, ravens, crows, and my favorite bird, the chickadee. There’s a garter snake living under some rocks piled in the corner of the yard. I’ve seen a fox, rats, ducks, and a wild turkey.
But there is little in the way of setting–either landscape or cultural–until later in the book. Then we get some really great tidbits–like the tunnels and caves in the banks of the Mississippi.
Out in back of the station, the ancient banks of the Mississippi, dry cliffs now, are riddled with empty caves left when the cliffs were mined for sand. The great banks are warrened with places that over the years have been used to store everything from Prohibition liquor to explosives to drugs. These were gangster hideouts, speakeasies, homeless people’s squats. The man who started St. Paul, Pig’s Eye Parrant, kept a tavern in one of the caves. Hermits and crazy people have made the caves their home. Children have been lost in the caves, died in the caves, and a coffee shop or two are still set into the grottolike foundation of the caves. One is a ballroom where high school proms are held. Some are wired up for heat and rented to stores—livable.
These caves really do exist in St. Paul. One complex of tunnels is known as the Wabasha Street Caves, and there’s an organization that operates dances and “gangster” tours through the caves. (There’s an interesting video tour on the This Old House website as well.)
There’s also an interesting tidbit about the Minneapolis Post Office.
The Minneapolis Post Office, perhaps the only major Minnesota building built to withstand an earthquake, was made in 1934 out of Kasota stone, a golden pink rock quarried in Mankato, Minnesota. A number of other buildings in the city, new and old, are made from this unusually pleasant stone.
We’ll learn more about Mankato when we get to The Night Birds by Thomas Maltman. This stopover also gave us what I think may be my favorite quote from this book:
[I] look at the lilies on the window, the calm light through the panels, the careful way the tile was inset, countersunk into the wood. How the flowers were fired and colored into the design. Perhaps this sort of gesture will be lost, perhaps it is a function of consciousness that we don’t need in order to survive. Perhaps this piece of evolution makes no sense—our hunger for everyday sorts of visual pleasure—but I don’t think so. I think we have survived because we love beauty and because we find each other beautiful. I think it may be our strongest quality.
Overall, Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich (2017) turned out to be a much better pick for my reading challenge than I expected. I will still check out The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse, and will update my main Minnesota page accordingly, but first, I’m working on the Vietnam/Lake of the Woods novel by Tim O’Brien, and These Granite Islands by Sarah Stonich.