Barbara Kingsolver's Unsheltered
is an ambitious, multidimensional novel that will please fans of her historical saga The Poisonwood Bible
Unsheltered takes place in Vineland, N.J., in two eras: the end of the 1800s and the present day. Using alternating chapters, Unsheltered relays the life of 21st-century grandmother Willa Knox and 19th-century science teacher Thatcher Greenwood. Knox has just inherited an old, dilapidated house in Vineland, and lives there her husband, Iano, and terminally ill, Donald Trump-loving father-in-law, Nick. Also residing there are her rebellious adult daughter, Tig, and depressed adult son, Zeke. Zeke's wife has recently taken her own life, leaving him with a newborn son. Underemployed, on government assistance and struggling to keep a roof over their heads while their house falls apart, the extended family represents the ailing American middle class that can no longer expect a brighter future for the next generation.
Thatcher, who lives with his new wife, Rose, in Willa's house when it's first built, struggles to fit into Vineland's faux-utopian community. In embracing Charles Darwin's new theories of evolution, he challenges orthodoxy and alienates himself from the town's supposedly benevolent elite. They fear Darwin's scientific explanations of human origins, and Thatcher finds his job in jeopardy as he defends basic scientific principles. Rose's loyalty is also put to the test. Fortunately, he makes friends with his neighbor Mary Treat, an enterprising woman biologist, and an iconoclastic newspaper editor named Uri Carruth. The three of them become targets of a conservative backlash.
Kingsolver uses the house to great effect, juxtaposing Thatcher's anxieties about its structural deficiencies with Willa's same anxieties more than a century later. Both worry about homelessness, or the state of being unsheltered. More than being physically without a home, though, their states of mind reflect sweeping cultural changes that threaten old ways of life. In the 19th century, it is science that threatens religious orthodoxy and comfortable myths. In the 21st century, climate change and globalization threaten comfortable middle-class assumptions about social mobility, fueling the reactionary rise of Donald Trump, referred to in the novel as the "Bullhorn." "Without shelter, we stand in daylight," Thatcher tells himself as his domestic world collapses. It's a refrain picked up by Willa, who also finds the courage to face the truth about her family and her own prospects.
Kingsolver's historical research is substantial. Mary Treat, a biologist who corresponded with Charles Darwin in real life, is a vibrant character on the page. Kingsolver expertly channels these two eras into a powerful message about the future and humankind's ability to adapt. Unsheltered
is one of the best novels of the year. --Scott Neuffer
, writer, poet, editor of trampset
Shelf Talker: Barbara Kingsolver's ambitious novel follows characters in different centuries as they undergo seismic cultural shifts.