Published by Harper
Publication date: October 16, 2018
Genres: Book Clubs, Contemporary, Fiction, Historical, Literary, Social Issues
Willa and her husband Iano are stuck in a situation that strikes fear in the heart of anyone in midlife—she’s newly unemployed and the college where he had tenure closed and he’s been forced to take an entry-level at a small school in Philadelphia. His father is a morbidly obese, deaf, virulent racist who lives with them because his wife died. Their 26-year-old daughter, Antigone (“Tig”), has moved home after years working for a non-profit in Cuba and their son, Zeke, with his ruinous student loans and no job, has also moved in, along with his newborn son. Compounding the issue is the fact that the home they’ve come back to in New Jersey is in danger of literally collapsing around them. This contemporary life of Job is actually Barbara Kingsolver’s new novel, Unsheltered, a bittersweet look at family life in contemporary America.
In an effort to get the house repaired Willa uses her journalistic skills to investigate getting a grant for the home as a site historical importance. As she starts digging for information, Kingsolver takes the narrative back to the neighborhood’s beginnings in the late 1800s when a high school science teacher, Thatcher Greenwood, moves in with his wife. A time when the house was new but already deemed improperly built and expensive to fix. Poor Thatcher is caught between a group of women who do not accept living on a school teacher’s salary and the principal where he teaches being firmly in the grasp of religious doctrine over scientific fact. This at time when Darwin has published the The Origin of Species and the country is divided into those open to change and those who want to go back to the ‘better’ times before the Civil War.
It’s not difficult to see the comparisons Kingsolver is drawing in Unsheltered. Vineland, the town where Willa and Thatcher live, is a real one, founded by Charles Landis, a wealthy white man who bought up tens of thousands of acres. He promised riches to anyone who moved there, bought his land, farmed it, and lived by his rules. Not surprisingly it did not go well, with people like Thatcher and the immigrants who showed up for the American Dream, finding themselves on the outs with the establishment and with no dream in sight. Kingsolver twines together the fear and reactionary attitudes of the men currently in power in America with the same kind of men running Vineland. Men for whom Darwinism and science were the greatest threat facing America because it would cause them to lose their hold on power.
What makes Unsheltered so fascinating is how, by taking the past and a time of great upheaval and polarization, Kingsolver applies it to the present. As Willa struggles to hold on to what she’s earned and keep her family from sliding from security into poverty, she is confronted, again and again, by her own daughter. A daughter who lived in Cuba for years and sees her parents as the problem, for wanting to have a lifestyle that perpetuates inequalities and environmental destruction. Reading the exchanges between Tig and Willa made me bristle for Willa’s sake, until I realized that in the minds of the next generation the hopes and desires of parents and grandparents are outlandishly unrealistic. It’s a sobering thought because it challenges the very tenets so many of us have lived by—work hard and at some point, you can relax and reap the rewards of that work. I can’t help but wonder: Is that an outdated notion now?
If this sounds unutterably depressing, don’t despair. I haven’t read Kingsolver in over a decade and was delighted at well she captures the voice I recognize—of world-weary women and parents, while at the same time projecting a voice I know nothing about—that of the future. Unsheltered is not dystopian fiction nor is it dreary reading. Kingsolver gives each of her characters such strong, clear personalities, all while infusing the narrative with her own wit and wisdom. Yes, she draws on politics, but at its heart Unsheltered is a novel of family, aging, relationships, and society. It is the first fiction I’ve read in a long time that really made me think and gave me a new perspective, all while keeping me enthralled. Simply put, this is the kind of reading that’s a gift. You won’t want it to end.