Cedar Hawk Songmaker, the main character in Louise Erdrich’s near-future dystopia, was originally named Mary Potts after her Ojibwe birth mother. Her lyrical surname is of British origin and comes from her adoptive parents, Minneapolis liberals Sera and Glen Songmaker. Meanwhile her forename reflects their celebration of her ethnicity, as Cedar recalls: “Native girl! Indian Princess! An Ojibwe, Chippewa. Anishinaabe.” A young pregnant woman living in a world that is “running backwards”, she is a neat embodiment of the complexity of race, identity and the matriarchal line.
Adoptions into and out of nuclear and extended families are a recurring theme in Erdrich’s novels; love is a gift that does not depend on blood, but blood ties are nevertheless hard to break. Here, Cedar’s baby is due on the 25 December, and she is determined to seek out her birth parents and discover their medical history. And with good reason. Evolution is reversing; animals, birds and insects are gradually reverting to their prehistoric forms. Humanoid babies look increasingly less human, live births are dwindling, women are dying in childbirth and “perfect” children are becoming rare.
Cedar narrates the novel in a diary intended for her child, “a record and an inquiry into the strangeness of things”. Her tone shifts between girlish self-absorption, excitement at the forthcoming birth, irritation with her parents and increasing terror at the jeopardy she finds herself in.
Erdrich has credited the Planned Parenthood organisation with helping her to realise her potential as a novelist: “If I hadn’t been able to choose when to have a baby, I would not have been able to put in those crucial years of growth as a writer.” She started writing Future Home of the Living God during the George W Bush era, prompted partly by the use of fear to limit debate following the 9/11 terror attacks and partly by his stance on reproductive rights. Having set the book aside for more than a decade, she only returned to it after the 2016 US election. The image of evolution going backwards is now an apposite political metaphor, the reduction of women to vessels that produce babies is all too easy to imagine.
Cedar considers her body her own. She has converted to Catholicism, partly as a means of rebelling against her adoptive parents, but is what Muriel Spark described as a chocolate box convert, picking and choosing the tenets which suit her. Cedar does not regret the abortion she had a decade ago and has no intention of marrying her baby’s father. When she finds her birth family, they are initially an “immense disappointment”. “It was a shock to realise that on the reservation I was even more ordinary … My family had no special powers with healing spirits or sacred animals. We weren’t even poor. We owned a Superpumper.”
A tribal member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians in North Dakota, Erdrich explores magical and religious realities in a contemporary, political world. Cedar’s half-sister – “nightmare kitten”, “cutie-pie vampire” – works hard on her “Goth-Lolita” look. Her mother works hard in the family petrol station; her stepfather works hard at not killing himself. Grandma Potts is a character that fans of Erdrich will recognise: a determined ancient, repository of sacred and profane stories including “The Nun Who Swallowed a White Ribbon and It Came Out the Other End White Too”. Evolutionary reversals may offer the Ojibwe people an opportunity to regain stolen land – but the apocalypse is not all good news.
As the crisis progresses, fertile women are encouraged to become “womb volunteers” and gestate embryos from in-vitro clinics. Things get worse: pregnant women are rounded up and imprisoned in hospitals, their newborn babies taken from them. The mystery of what happens to the confiscated babies adds to the terror. It is only a matter of time before Cedar is imprisoned: rather than await her fate, she goes on the run. As baby Songmaker’s birth grows near, the tension ramps up. The self-selected new authorities are determined to continue the human race despite the cost to women’s freedom.
Dangerous pregnancies, strange births and threatened reproductive rights haunt speculative fiction by female writers: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Doris Lessing’s The Fifth Child, Octavia Butler’s Blood Child and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale are classics of perilous propagative fiction. Pregnancy is the perfect vehicle for body-horror. Birth is dangerous; you do not know what you might be harbouring in your womb or who might try to take it from you.
Erdrich is a prolific novelist, a star of North American literature who should be better known in the UK. Her storytelling and political insight make Future Home of the Living God a new classic of the genre. It is a horribly plausible novel for our times.
• Louise Welsh’s No Dominion is published by John Murray. Future Home of the Living God is published by Corsair. To order a copy for £16.14 (RRP £18.99) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.