Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver

The world as we know it is falling apart.

At least it seems that way. The polar ice caps are melting. A contested Supreme Court nomination is but the latest in a long string of embittered clashes between Democrats and Republicans. Frustrated Americans are raging against the current administration (or, more often, each other) while stocking up on anxiety-reducing gravity blankets (yes, that’s now a thing).

But, as Barbara Kingsolver so wisely points out in a letter at the beginning of the advanced readers’ copy of her politically engaged ninth novel, Unsheltered, this isn’t the first time this has happened, though it might feel that way. We’ve been here before, albeit under different circumstances. Therefore, to better comprehend the present, she writes, why not examine the past to help shape the future.

Unsheltered is not only the keenly observed and thought-provoking result of Kingsolver’s attempt to do so. It is also a much-needed reminder that literature can and should serve as both a learning tool and a salve for some of the fear and outrage we are experiencing in these trying times.

The book is broken up into two separate but intertwining narratives relayed in alternating chapters. Each is told from the perspective of the families living in the same dilapidated brick house in Vineland, N.J., more than a century apart.

The sections set in the present day are viscerally recognizable. Fifty-something Willa Knox and her hunky husband Iano have been married for 30 years. But instead of resting comfortably in their once-coveted middle-class lifestyle and coasting on retirement funds, they have virtually nothing to show for their efforts. Willa lost her job in Virginia as a respected journalist when the magazine at which she worked folded. Iano was abruptly kicked out of a tenure track when his university employer went belly-up.

Luckily an inheritance from Willa’s deceased aunt and a new one-year teaching gig at a nearby college allows them to relocate to Vineland — but not alone. They’re also saddled with their 26-year-old daughter, Tig, who’s moved back in with the parents following a fumbled stint in Cuba and few high-paying job prospects; their son Zeke’s newborn after his girlfriend commits suicide and Zeke skulks away to Boston to pursue an investment banking startup opportunity; and Iano’s crankpot of a Greek-immigrant father, who uses his dying breaths to blather ad nauseam about the positive qualities of then-presidential candidate Donald Trump (whom Willa amusingly refers to as “the Bullhorn”) and complain about “wetbacks” stealing jobs from white men.

Though relatively happy (a troubling word), no one in Willa’s strapped family has a lick of savings to put toward home repairs, let alone baby food or health insurance. In a last-ditch effort to find some sort of “architectural pedigree” that might lead to a grant and save the condemned house from demolition, she uses her not-quite-dried-up sleuthing skills to uncover a possible connection to Mary Treat, a colleague of Charles Darwin’s and one of the greatest naturalists of her generation.

Which brings me to plot thread No. 2 — an utterly captivating saga that weaves good old-fashioned storytelling with historically accurate details, and pits wife against husband, Creationism against Darwinism, fear against nonconformity, and faith against reason. (Note: hyperbolic-sounding praise warranted.)

Here in 1860s Vineland, we meet 30-year-old high school science teacher Thatcher Greenwood, whose marriage to vapid, social-climbing Rose, a decade his junior, is strained after a failed pregnancy. What’s more, he’s facing a shakedown by feeble-minded headmaster Cutler, who goes to great lengths to prevent Thatcher from teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution to his students in favor of “using scripture bent back on itself like a fish hook” and remaining loyal to the status quo.

As history shows, Thatcher’s fight for progress and the pursuit of truth is a Sisyphean one. Eventually, he loses his job, his wife, and the “Darwin vs. Decency” debate staged in front of the townspeople, most of whom easily acquiesce to Cutler’s call for a “return to fundamentals” when threatened with change. But by standing up for what he believes in, Thatcher wins what seems like the larger battle: the return of his long-absent self-worth and the much sought-after respect of his next-door neighbor and friend, Treat, who councils Thatcher to “lead [his students] out of doors. Teach them to see evidence for themselves, and not to fear it.”

Kingsolver’s ideas in Unsheltered aren’t exactly new. But it’s the way she presents them that’s both easily accessible and unique. Her much-demonstrated talent for developing truly believable characters is, once again, on full display. Though one-dimensional Rose and even stereotypically self-absorbed Zeke seem like they’ve been propped up to advance the plot, layered gems like resourceful Tig and the scene-stealing fictionalized version of real-life Mary Treat are such a delight to read that they more than fill in the gaps.

Perhaps more importantly, it’s the characters’ hardscrabble circumstances — especially in the modern story — that resonate right down to the bone. For Willa and her brood, the American dream — and the idea that each generation will have more than the one before it — is dead. After all, “taking all the right turns had led her family to the wrong place, moneyless and a few storms away from homelessness.”

Still, though ripe with depressing parallels to the late 19th century and now, Unsheltered isn’t ultimately a doomsday read; it’s a cautionary one.

Yes: We are in the midst of a “national tidal wave of self-interest.”

Yes: “The wounds of this ruptured nation lie open and ugly.”

And, sadly, yes: “When men fear the loss of what they know, they will follow any tyrant who promises to restore the old order. ”

But also, as Mary Treat reminds us, yes: “We are given to live in a remarkable time. When the nuisance of old mythologies falls away from us, we may see with new eyes. … Without shelter, we stand in daylight.”

 

Originally published in the San Francisco Chronicle (October 15, 2018)

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