Barbara Kingsolver’s novels have always been socially conscious, going all the way back to her very first book, The Bean Trees–in which a young woman leaves rural Kentucky to pursue her dreams only to unexpectedly find herself caring for a Native American child in Arizona. What is great about her work is that for the most part, you never feel like you are being beaten over the head with her themes or that you are being scolded.
This feat is pulled off particularly well in Unsheltered, which has many scenes in which characters either reflect on the state of the world (and how it has not lived up to their expectations) or debate sides of a political/economic/societal issue. It should feel preachy but it doesn’t–which is probably helped by how even-handed Kingsolver is on these issues. It doesn’t feel that she’s trying to say one side is right or wrong, just that she’s laying out both sides so the reader can pick them up and think about them.
The novel has two storylines, the primary of which follows Willa Knox in the near-present (it takes place not long after Hurricane Sandy). Willa has been a successful journalist until she recently lost her job due to the closure of the magazine she worked for, and she has been unable to get a freelance career off the ground as yet. Her husband, a professor, lost his tenured position when the college he worked for also closed, and he has been forced to take a humiliating position (given his academic credentials) just to earn some money, relocating his family to Vineland, New Jersey, and into an inherited home that is literally falling apart around them.
Right there we arrive at one of Kingsolver’s central themes, and how she approaches the idea of shelter from several different directions. There’s the literal idea of shelter as provided by a home, but also the shelter of careers, stability, and institutions. Willa and her family live in a world in which things that are supposed to be steady and reliable have begun to break apart, leaving them feeling exposed and unsure.
This is furthered by the idea of shelter as provided by a parent. Willa’s father-in-law lives with them and is in the process of dying. Willa and her husband have assumed the role of caregiver, but lack the financial resources or health insurance to provide for him. Willa’s two children, Tig and Zeke, are also living with them. Zeke is saddled by crippling debt thanks to his fancy education and has a baby of his own in tow after the suicide of his girlfriend. Willa and Tig do the lion’s share of caring for the baby, a helpless being whose uncertain future resonates across all of Kingsolver’s characters.
Tig is her brother’s antithesis–while he pursues money and traditional success, Tig sees such pursuits as futile in the rapidly changing world they (and we) inhabit. She sees Zeke’s ambitions as laughable–he seeks to make money by helping the already wealthy earn even more money, and as the economy craters and the environment disintegrates (setting the novel in the wake of Hurricane Sandy was no accident), Tig believes that Zeke will only end up in the same boat as their parents.
Willa and her family have done everything right, but the world they were promised has failed them.
The second storyline, set in the 1880s, follows Thatcher Greenwood, who lived in the same house Willa and her family now inhabit. In his time, the utopian town of Vineland (a real town in New Jersey, by the way) is newly established, but the house’s shoddy structure is already readily apparent (how it managed to survive to the present day when it was already in a bad state back then is unknowable). Thatcher is a teacher who runs afoul of Vineland’s political and spiritual leaders by having the audacity to teach his students the controversial subject of evolution. That evolution is unfortunately still a controversial topic today makes these sections of the book particularly relevant–not to mention maddening. You can see the roots of the modern “fake news” bubble proliferating on social media, reminding us that things have always been terrible. This is alternately comforting, infuriating, and galvanizing.
And there is another form of shelter: the citizens of Vineland in Thatcher’s storyline are sheltering themselves in the version of the world that gives them comfort. They do not want to be challenged or to have to think differently. They would rather continue with the world as it is, even if doing so is wrong or will ultimately cause more harm.
Thatcher’s story features a woman named Mary Treat–a real-life Vineland resident who collaborated with Charles Darwin himself despite her lack of formal education (thanks to being a woman in the 1800s).
Interestingly, although there are no looming disasters in Unsheltered, it feels like an apocalyptic novel. Kingsolver does a great sense of using the central upheaval of the economy and our institutions to tie into the idea of dramatic climate change to give her novel a sense of foreboding and dread without actually featuring doom in any corporeal form.
I don’t think Unsheltered is a perfect novel, but I really enjoyed it and the way it gave me a lot to think about. For that, I absolve this novel of its flaws and give it my hearty recommendation.