In the aftermath of the 2008 housing crisis, American families continue to struggle. The collapse made it more difficult to keep finances and mortgages in check, and more likely for desperate voters to turn to unstable leaders in government. Enter Barbara Kingsolver’s eighth novel, Unsheltered.
The novel follows two stories, one set in the 1870s and the other in present day, both in Vineland, New Jersey, on the same street. The narratives follow families struggling to keep their houses together, literally, while battling opposition from dependents as well as obsolescent, tyrannical leadership.
Journalist Willa Knox and her professor husband, Iano, have both just lost what they thought were steady jobs in Virginia, and their house goes along with the closing of Iano’s college. They inherit an old home in Vineland, but quickly realize it’s also doomed as it falls apart around them. Their feisty daughter, Tig (Antigone), has just reappeared from an extended stay in Cuba (where she spent her days “bouncing like a molecule through an unstable universe”), while their son, Zeke, suddenly needs help with his now motherless newborn after tragedy strikes.
There’s also Iano’s cranky, vocally right-wing, ailing father, Nick, and the family’s dying dog. Amid it all, the falling house almost adds humor to the tense situation. Fearless Willa, meanwhile, searches for ways to get house repairs paid for by the historical society.
She is a successful narrator; you want to see her settled, not failing to put dinner on the table or frustrated over the rising success of an unbelievably offensive presidential candidate (who remains unnamed).
Rewind to the 1870s, to a time when Grant is president and Darwin’s theory of evolution has only just emerged. Thatcher Greenwood is a young high school teacher who relocates after his new bride and her family inherit a house in Vineland, on the same street the Knox family settles almost a century and a half later.
Thatcher is a well-educated scientist whose one hope is to teach his students about evolution. The theory faces extreme opposition from Charles Landis, the town’s (real-life) founder and relentless developer, as well as Thatcher’s boss, Professor Cutler, who knocks down every request Thatcher makes for discussing survival of the fittest. Landis and Cutler encourage scientific teachings only as far as the scripture takes them, and their goal becomes taking down the new teacher and his supporters.
While Thatcher deals with this stress at work, his wife, Rose, and her mother seem only to be concerned with society goings-on and which fabric to use for their next dress. As Thatcher longs for a companion which which to discuss his troubles, he meets his neighbor, scientist Mary Treat, modeled after the real-life correspondent to Darwin and American botanist Asa Gray. She doesn’t behave like the other women in town, with tarantulas residing in bowls in her living room, obsessing over ant colonies and new plant species.
Mary tells Thatcher not to fear social constructions: “Without shelter, we stand in daylight”; and as such, we are connected to every other species on the planet.
Kingsolver again delivers exceptional storytelling, as Unsheltered is full of well-developed characters and delightful plot twists, even if brief. As history repeats itself, the symbolism is not hard to grasp, but the message remains potent nonetheless. Both protagonists deal with unstable families while foundations themselves flounder; the economy, the government, and scientific fact as we know it. Thatcher and Willa come to realize that the solution to their failing shelters is not what they expected, and that they may need to act instead of waiting for a miracle.
Willa and Tig have one of the most compelling relationships. Tig continues to surprise her mother with both her patience, caring for the baby and Nick, and her admirable frugality. She thinks her parents’ generation has always longed for a false sense of security, created by the problematic “American dream.” As Tig tells Willa, “you won’t find your way out of the mess if you keep picking up bricks and stuffing them in your pockets. What you have to do is look for blue sky.”
Starting over, then, for Willa or for Thatcher, doesn’t need to feel like failure so much as a rebuilding or a fresh look—a look at what our country required after the Civil War and could use a bit more of today.
By Barbara Kingsolver
Published October 16, 2018
Barbara Kingsolver is the author of eight novels, a collection of short stories, a poetry collection, three works of book-length nonfiction, and multiple essay collections. Her work has been translated into more than twenty languages and has earned awards such as the National Humanities Medal and the prestigious Dayton Literary Peace Prize.