Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich

We all remember the “March of Progress” poster from grade school science class, used to illustrate the  straight-line evolution of Homo sapiens from our ancient ancestors. From Australopithecus  to Homo habilius and then to the assumed apex of human evolution – us. But what if evolution wasn’t a straight line? What if suddenly, somehow, it doubled-back on itself, returning our species to our most ancient origins?

It is in this speculative world that Louise Erdrich’s latest novel Future Home of the Living God is set. Taking place in an unspecified time in the near future, the novel is presented as the journal of 26 year-old Cedar Hawk Songmaker, written to her unborn child. Cedar, the adopted daughter of liberal Minnesota parents, finding herself pregnant, is compelled to seek out her Ojibwe birth parents, ostensibly to discover any genetic problems that might affect her baby, and in a larger sense, to find her own identity. This familiar journey of personal discovery is set against a tumultuous time in which the future of the earth is gravely in doubt as evolution appears to be running backward. Plants and animals are born “wrong,” throwbacks to their genetic ancestors. Human babies and their mothers are dying at an alarming rate, and those infants that do survive are abnormal, with characteristics more similar to our genetic ancestors. The planet is heating up, with harsh Minnesota winters a fond, distant memory, and political chaos is rampant. Soon, pregnant women are encouraged, then forced, into “unborn protective centers” – prisons, really – and a “womb draft” is instated. As Cedar’s pregnancy progresses, she confesses to her baby that she isn’t sure if he (and she is sure it is a he) will have the ability to read the journal that she is writing, if he survives at all. Cedar soon becomes a fugitive, then a prisoner, then fugitive again, seeking sanctuary with her birth family with the help of her adoptive parents.

If this all sounds strikingly familiar to The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, you would be correct. In her author’s notes, Erdrich writes that she began the novel in 2002, then set it aside,  picking it up again after the most recent election. Future Home of the Living God is Erdrich’s first speculative fiction book, but still closely shares the Native American culture she has explored in her past works. The premise of backwards evolution and how it might bring the end of civilization is compelling – it’s what interested me in the book in the first place – and it reads like a thriller (I read it all in one sitting). But at a slim 267 pages, it reads almost too fast, with not nearly enough time spent exploring the circumstances of the world it is set in, the stories of Cedar’s families, or her baby’s father. Since the story is told in the form of a journal, which does lend an intimacy to the narrative, many things go unsaid, or dropped entirely. Even the mystery of Cedar’s birth and adoption – the revelation of which is emotionally catastrophic for her – is quickly dropped to move onto the next crisis. At a few points, I thought that the plot was going in one direction, and then, disappointingly, found it dropped. Perhaps my expectations were overly influenced by my usual science fiction preferences. Some the misdirections reminded me of the short story “Before” by Carolyn Dunn (contained in the excellent collection After edited by Ellen Datlow) an end-of-the-world tale of a plague that leaves only those with Native American ancestors alive. But, that is not the case here.

Which isn’t to say the novel isn’t an exciting and interesting read. There are thoughtful explorations of faith (Cedar is a recent convert to Catholicism), the origin and evolution of our species, how and why we became human, and the consequences of ignoring and abusing our environment and each other, all alongside Cedar’s journey into motherhood and her birth family. The ending might come abruptly, but it is well worth the journey.

Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate

What would you do if you found out the life that you were living was a lie? If the life your parents or grandparents have lived was based on a lie? What if your entire family history was based on a lie? This is the true story for some children whose parents don’t tell them that they are adopted either until later in life or after the parents die. Such events can sometimes be traumatic, but it all depends on the child’s character and the sense of identity that they have developed. Will the news that they are adopted be easily accepted or will it throw their lives into upheaval as they work to find their birth parents and their biological heritage? Those questions are all prevalent through Lisa Wingate’s newest book, Before We Were Yours.

Before We Were Yours is a work of historical fiction that delves into the shady antics of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society run by the infamous Georgia Tann. Tann ran the Tennessee Children’s Home Society for over 25 years. Between 1924 and 1950, it is estimated that Tann stole over 5,000 children from their families and that over 500 died from abuse, disease, and poor care while they were living under Tann’s care. This true story shattered so many lives. I recommend you read a little bit about Tann and the Tennessee Children’s Home Society before you pick up Before We Were Yours in order to give yourself background information (It isn’t necessary, but like a true Girl Scout and an ever researching librarian, I love to be prepared.)

Before We Were Yours begins in Memphis, Tennessee in 1936. The five Foss children are anxiously awaiting the birth of their youngest new sibling while their mom labors inside their shanty boat home. Fearing for the mom’s life, the midwife demands that she be taken to the hospital to give birth or the babies and the mom will die. Shuttling her off to the hospital in a boat, the dad tells the eldest Foss child to watch over the siblings and stay at the shanty boat until they come back. Men show up in the middle of the night however and the Foss siblings’ lives are forever changed.

Flash to the present and Avery Stafford has come home to help her parents through her father’s cancer treatment and to also be groomed to possibly take over her father’s political career. At a particularly moving photo-op in a nursing home, Avery meets a woman who immediately captures her interest. The things this woman says to her has Avery shaken to the core. Avery decides that she needs to learn more about this mysterious woman’s life and thus begins a journey that will change her family’s history forever. Secrets never really stay secrets after all.

This novel shifts back and forth between the Foss children in the 1930s and Avery Stafford in the present. I really enjoyed the flip-flop between the two stories as the story of the Foss children created a deep swirling mystery around the woman in the nursing home and Avery’s grandmother. This book had me doing two things: learning more about Georgia Tann and the Tennessee Children’s Home Society AND looking into my family’s history to see what I did not know already.


This book is also available in the following formats:

Meet Maria Nhambu

Last fall I wrote about Maria Nhambu’s memoir, Africa’s Child. You can read my blog about it here. It tells the story of how she grew up as an orphaned, mixed-race child in Tanzania. The first book in the Dancing Soul Trilogy, Africa’s Child is as heartbreaking as it is inspiring. It leaves you wondering where she went from there.

I am thrilled to share that the second book, called America’s Daughter, has been published. In it, Nhambu chronicles what it was like for her leaving Africa. She was eighteen years old with a newly-adoptive mother who was barely four years older than her. She found a vastly different culture in America and began building a new life in it.

Laugh and cry with her as she recalls the many differences between Tanzania and Minnesota. She reveres education as her key to escaping a life of poverty and oppression. It is no surprise that she chose a career as an educator (at one point, she taught a soon-to-be famous musician named Prince Rogers Nelson.) Nhambu has a love for music, especially African music. She went on to create a program called Aerobics With Soul. It incorporates African dance into a fitness workout.

Nhambu still spends summers in Minnesota, but lives in Delray Beach, Florida during the winter. Thanks to family ties she has to the Quad Cities, she will be visiting us at Eastern on Saturday, Sept 9 at 10:30am to share her story with us in person. Joining her will be her adoptive mother and sister. Refreshments and copies of her books will be available. If we are lucky, there will be dancing. 😉

Nhambu is a gifted storyteller whose candor has made me cry, then cheer for her. Come meet a fascinating woman whose indomitable spirit has proven that love truly does conquer all.

The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty

The Chaperone is a captivating novel about the woman who chaperoned an irreverent Louise Brooks to New York City in 1922 and the summer that would change them both.

Only a few years before becoming a famous silent-film star and an icon of her generation, a fifteen-year-old Louise Brooks leaves Wichita, Kansas, to study with the prestigious Denishawn School of Dancing in New York. Much to her annoyance, she is accompanied by a chaperone, who is neither mother nor friend. Cora Carlisle, a complicated but traditional woman with her own reasons for making the trip, has no idea what she’s in for. Young Louise, already stunningly beautiful and sporting her famous black bob with blunt bangs, is known for her arrogance and her lack of respect for convention. For Cora, the city holds the promise of discovery that might answer the question at the core of her being, and even as she does her best to watch over Louise in this strange and bustling place she embarks on a mission of her own. And while what she finds isn’t what she anticipated, she is liberated in a way she could not have imagined. Over the course of Cora’s relationship with Louise, her eyes are opened to the promise of the twentieth century and a new understanding of the possibilities for being fully alive.

Drawing on the rich history of the 1920s,’30s, and beyond–from the orphan trains to Prohibition, flappers, and the onset of the Great Depression to the burgeoning movement for equal rights and new opportunities for women–Laura Moriarty’s The Chaperone illustrates how rapidly everything, from fashion and hemlines to values and attitudes, was changing at this time and what a vast difference it all made for Louise Brooks, Cora Carlisle, and others like them. (description from publisher)