by Louise Erdrich, 2017
Book Riot Read Harder Challenge: Read a book set in the Midwest.
In a bizarre twist of history, evolution has begun proceeding backwards. We don’t know why this is happening, nor do the characters; all we know is that plants have started growing wilder and leafier, animals resembling their ancestral forebears hunt the land, and women have started giving birth to pre-Homo sapien babies. The result of this is pregnant women are put on high watch, required to “voluntarily” turn themselves in to be monitored until they give birth or be turned in against their wills. Cedar Hawk Songmaker, our protagonist, is four months pregnant, and this book is the letter she writes to her unborn child as she struggles to stay free and alive.
The novel is mostly 26-year-old Cedar’s story, both as an expectant mother and as a child working to find her roots. We learn immediately that she is Ojibwe and was adopted by white “Minneapolis liberals.” How she was adopted is still a bit of a question , as the Indian Child Welfare Act prohibits the adoption of a Native American child into a non-Native family. Her adoptive parents, Glen and Sera, have never quite answered this for her, but they have celebrated her ethnicity in any way possible, although it’s clear that Cedar feels that she was made into something of a token who, perhaps, made her parents feel more special. At the beginning of the novel, Cedar has received a letter from her biological mother with whom she shares the birth name of Mary Potts. The elder Mary, who goes by Sweetie, owns a gas station, which bursts Cedar’s imaginings of a traditional and somewhat stereotypical Native birth family. She makes her first trip to meet her, while also meeting her stepfather Eddy, her younger half-sister, also named Mary Potts, and her grandmother. With them, Cedar will discover who she really is and attempt to evade the law.
Congress has called a state of emergency, and there are rumors that the de-evolution developments could be the result of a new virus (truly chilling to read in 2021). When society starts to crumble, Cedar stocks up on food, as well as alcohol and cigarettes for trading and all sorts of ammunition. After a routine ultrasound visit, Cedar’s doctor won’t tell her anything about her baby, but the measurements mean they need to keep her there. He then orders her to tape him to the chair and run, not telling anyone she’s pregnant when she gets out. Cedar and her adoptive parents make plans to run and hide. Sera apologizes to Cedar for refusing to vaccinate her as a child and is overjoyed to find out that Cedar did it on her own when she turned 18. In a clear criticism of the anti-vax movement on Erdrich’s part, Cedar tells her mother, “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.”
The proceedings of this new society are harrowing, and will give any Margaret Atwood fan sharp recollections of The Handmaid’s Tale. Although this story is altogether different, the comparisons cannot be avoided, as the natural inclination of a society in crisis is to immediately control its women. Sperm and egg donation banks are raided in the hopes of producing embryos from the before-times, and women must sign up to be “Womb Volunteers” to gestate these embryos, an idea that I found truly disturbing. UPS goes from being a delivery service to the “Unborn Protection Society,” a group that, as is often the case for those who claim to protect fetuses, really just threatens the freedom of women of child-bearing age. Erdrich’s imagining of this feminist dystopia is on par with that of Atwood’s: no less than brutality and savagery cloaked under the guise of women’s safety.
While the novel is a page-turner, the end leaves much to be desired. I don’t need everything tied up nicely for me, and I’m actually quite a fan of an ambiguous ending, but this one felt as if Erdrich simply decided to stop writing. As we follow Cedar through her pregnancy and the birth, there is no sense of closure, not even of the “Oh shit, what’s going to happen to her?!” variety. It’s more of the “Well…that happened” variety, and it’s really unsatisfying. Nevertheless, the bulk of the story is both believable and distressing, taking how women today are often treated as nothing more than incubators to its harrowing extreme. (I mean, we’re still telling women [and not men] they shouldn’t drink EVER because they might harm a non-existent but potential baby. SMH.) Despite its weak ending, this still deserves a spot in the annals of feminist, dystopian, speculative fiction that warns of the dangers of our own tenuous societal structures.