This was a fascinating book, and one I recommend it if you’re looking for something like The Handmaid’s Tale (appropriate on this Women’s March weekend). Erdrich’s book is set in the near future, where instead of environmental catastrophe, mankind is facing a different threat: life has begun to evolve backwards, and no one can tell what the future of humanity might be. Based on the babies that have recently been born underdeveloped, the prognosis isn’t good.
Narrator Cedar is a young woman, in her mid-twenties, who finds herself pregnant, and is writing this book as a diary to her unborn child. Cedar decides to look up her birth parents so at least she’ll have some idea what her baby will be facing. But because of the crisis, the government has become extremely unstable. Martial law takes over and the government starts rounding up all pregnant women. Cedar, her adoptive parents, her birth mother, and the baby’s father all have to fight to keep the baby safe.
I found this to be a fast-moving read, and quite a different one from Erdrich’s other books, which are much more introspective. The dystopian theme is a departure for Erdrich, but it’s an interesting story with strong characters. There’s a lot of action, but at the same time Cedar has to grapple with her feelings about her newly discovered family and what that means for her relationship with her adoptive parents.
More interesting, Erdrich writes in the beginning of the book about Cedar and her liberal parents’ romanticizing of her Ojibwe background. She’s disappointed to find that her mother, Mary Potts, runs a gas station convenience store. I thought this was a really interesting way to begin the story. Cedar has to come to terms with her own heritage throughout this novel, and I would have liked to know more about the Potts’ tribal life.
A downside to this book is that Erdrich doesn’t spend enough time grappling with the biological implications of her scenario. Cedar is fighting for the life of her baby even though there’s no telling how the baby will be born and the risk to her own health is enormous. Even her mother isn’t convinced she should carry the child to term.
As with a lot of dystopian fiction right now, this book feels disturbingly possible. I don’t know about the reverse evolution thing, which didn’t make much sense to me, but everything else seems like it could happen. The government using technology to spy on people, the heavy-handed use of religion to control women’s reproduction, and a biological fertility crisis all seem not so very far away.
Challenges: this book meets categories in the Read Harder 2018 challenge (a science fiction novel with a female protagonist written by a female author) and Science Fiction v Fantasy Bingo (Dystopia/ End of the World).
UPDATE: Tonight I went to a book club to discuss this book and the group had a great discussion. Something I didn’t realize, but that makes a lot of sense, is that this is actually an older work of Erdrich’s, a draft novel found on an old computer and published probably because of the huge success of The Handmaid’s Tale. Erdrich herself felt the book was maybe rushed a bit too much to publication. Some of the book club noted that the book felt drafty and unfinished, especially in the later parts of the book. They also felt that the premise was vague, which I agree with, although in a way the sense of confusion in the book adds to its realistic feel. As a narrator, Cedar doesn’t know what’s going on most of the time. This will either feel realistic to you or drive you crazy. Thanks to the book club for a really interesting discussion!