“Unsheltered,” by Barbara Kingsolver

Barbara Kingsolver

Reviewed by Donna Meredith

In her latest novel, Unsheltered (Harper Collins, 2018), Barbara Kingsolver pokes a sharp pen deep into the nest of the American dream, stirring up a mound of undelivered promises and discontented characters who scurry about like angry ants. Perhaps, as some critics say, the novel’s characters serve too much as mouthpieces for political points of view. Or perhaps it will find a place on the shelf of Great American Novels right beside The Great Gatsby. Maybe both are true.

In two different time periods, Unsheltered’s characters grapple with the reality of a house built on a nonexistent foundation. A contractor deems it “a shambles,” but soon the meaning of shelter expands into the shaky foundations of familial relationships, the dangers of idolizing political leaders, and the unsustainable nature of capitalism and unbridled growth.

Unsheltered delivers a fascinating history of the planned community of Vineland, New Jersey, and one of its residents, Mary Treat, a little known scientist. The novel also offers a scathing indictment of the current political climate and president. Yet above all, Unsheltered is the story of two families trying to forge bonds that provide love, security, and survival in a world where long-cherished ideas and ideals are upended.

In 2016, freelance writer Willa Knox and her professor husband Iano inherit a house with an addition built directly on the ground. The walls are cracking, the roof separating, and there’s no money to tear down and rebuild. After Iano’s college and the magazine Willa works for both close their doors, the family has little choice but to move to this house.

Easy-going Iano accepts a low-paying, low-security job as an adjunct. That’s just one of the family’s upheavals. Willa’s mother died, and “it had been her mother who put Willa back together” after any argument with one of her children. Willa feels this loss every time she wishes she could call her mother to sort out her life: “When someone mattered like that, you didn’t lose her at death. You lost her as you kept living.”

Willa and Iano have also taken in his aging father Nick, a pessimistic racist who requires an oxygen tank to stay alive. Their twenty-six-year-old daughter Tig has moved back home after a break-up with her boyfriend. And if that weren’t enough, their son Zeke’s partner Helen commits suicide soon after childbirth, sending both Zeke and the newborn under the parental roof as well.

The roof that is falling in. Literally.

Willa tries not to be angry with Zeke’s dead wife, since “[t]here but for the grace of serotonin go the rest of us,” but it’s difficult not to be angry, considering the damage Helene has inflicted on her son and their baby, who will grow up not knowing his mother. Willa soon learns Zeke, who achieved the ultimate American dream of graduating from an Ivy League School with a finance degree, is saddled with suffocating debt from student loans. How can it be that her son did everything right and ended up so unhappy and lost? Like so many in the middle class today, Willa wonders how it can be that “[t]here’s less money in the world than there used to be.” She is overwhelmed with worry for both her grown children: “A mother can be only as happy as her unhappiest child. Willa believed in the power of worry to keep another human from flying out of orbit.” This powerful observation merits comparison to Tolstoy’s observation on unhappy families in the opening of Anna Karenina, showcasing Kingsolver at her best.

The most vibrant character in the modern section is Willa’s daughter Tig, short for Antigone, the hero of Sophocles’ play who insisted that moral principles trump man-made laws. At first glance, Tig seems like an irresponsible, diminutive oddball who has run off to Cuba and hasn’t gotten in touch with her family for years. She shows back up unexpectedly with decidedly socialist views. Willa describes Tig this way: “She had the temperament of the fire-eyed little shih tzu at the dog park that takes on the rottweilers with zero sense of disadvantage.”

She may be tiny, yet Tig is the only family member able to manage her grandfather Nick. Patiently she feeds him and ignores his outbursts. It is Tig who befriends the neighbor Jorge, who owns a car repair service and is one of the few people who can explain why a short-throw shifter shortens the time between gear changes to you without confusing you. She crawls under vehicles and helps to fix them. When the family and neighbors can’t afford food, Tig and Jorge dig up the lawn and plant a community garden. It is Tig who cuddles and quiets her brother’s wailing newborn Dusty. When Zeke is unable or unwilling to bond with his son, she and Jorge assume custody. A devoted environmentalist, Tig believes it is morally repugnant to acquire material possessions at the expense of the planet and family relationships. Her parents’ constant moving about in search of tenure and security “maimed her parents’ existence” and left the family without a sense of “long-term community.” Community and sustainability are what Tig’s all about. She and Jorge fix up a tiny carriage house as their home. Antigone more than lives up to her name.

The clever segue methods Kingsolver employs between chapters create an easy flow between time periods and emphasize the ways lives in modern times replicate those in the earlier era. As Kingsolver shifts from Willa’s story, a word becomes the title of the next chapter set in the Victorian era with newlyweds Thatcher and Rose Greenwood, and their scientist neighbor Mary Treat. For example, Chapter One ends with Willa declaring, “We’re all beginners,” and Chapter Two is titled “Beginners.” Similarly, Chapter Two ends with science teacher Thatcher watching Mrs. Treat peer into the grass, and he becomes curious as to “what was holding her attention on a hot August day.” He recognizes a kindred soul, one who is an “Investigator”—the title of the next chapter, where Willa begins researching her rundown house, hoping to snag a grant from the Vineland Historical Society to fund repairs. She learns that Charles Landis purchased land along the New Jersey railroad line and built an alcohol-free utopian community based on agriculture and progressive thinking. Landis invited Italian grape growers to immigrate and clear land. Their efforts resulted in “unfermented grape juice.” The venture grew into Welch Food, Inc. Sandy soil also attracted the glass industry. New Jersey’s first school for the intellectually disabled also began in Vineland. Kingsolver deftly weaves all these historical threads into her story.

The second thread of the novel occurs circa 1871 in Vineland’s early years. Although Thatcher Greenwood initially adores his diminutive new wife Rose, they are not well matched. She and her mother Aurelia, who lives with them, are far more concerned with material acquisitions and social appearances than he is. He is “unnerved watching his wife lie so easily” and “prettily” when it suits her purposes. He keeps many activities and thoughts to himself because “[m]uch happiness rested upon what Rose did not know.” Thatcher is far more attuned to his neighbor Mary Treat, a character based on a real scientist of that name. Mary conducts experiments, collects botanical and insect specimens, and corresponds with leading scientists of the day, like Charles Darwin. Thatcher, coincidentally, has proposed including Darwin’s discoveries in his science curriculum, much to the dismay of Mr. Cutler, the extremely pious man in charge of the new high school. While Vineland might be progressive, the men in charge eschew the concept of evolution. It upends their worldview. Every creature created by an all-powerful God must still exist because God doesn’t make mistakes. There can be no extinction. No adaptation. No improvements. Clearly, Thatcher has an ethical choice to make: will he teach what he believes to be scientific truth or teach creationism? If he wants to keep his job and his family, he must stick with tradition. He is faced with an “Antigone moment.”

Kingsolver draws clear parallels between Landis and President Trump. Vineland’s founder murders a newspaperman who had the temerity to satirize him. He gets off without serving prison time—and yes, this is historically accurate. Trump also bragged that he could murder someone in the middle of the street and his supporters would still love him. Both men despise news coverage failing to depict them as heroes. They insist on foisting their own worldviews on others, even when science proves those views are false. Willa refers to the president as “a mean, grabby, self-aggrandizing man,” one who is “legitimizing personal greed as the principal religion of our country.” Yet Tig believes that if the country hadn’t chosen Trump, we would have found another “prophet of self-indulgence” because we are looking for “reassurance” that our old way of life is sustainable. We are looking for a “liar who’s good at distracting us from the truth.”

And what are we to make of the collapsing house? Kingsolver sends a clear warning: the divisions in our country—not just between the two political parties, but also between the haves and have nots—unless somehow resolved, portend inevitable collapse. Only a lifestyle built on a solid foundation can endure.

Kingsolver’s smack-down of capitalism is less subtle than Fitzgerald’s in The Great Gatsby, though both indict wealthy Americans who feel entitled and behave carelessly toward their fellow humans. Time will reveal whether her novel can earn the lasting stature of his.

Barbara Kingsolver was named one the most important writers of the 20th Century by Writers Digest, and the publication of Unsheltered will only serve to cement her reputation as a literary lion. In 2000 she received the National Humanities Medal, our country’s highest honor for service through the arts. Her fifteen books include The Bean Trees, The Poisonwood Bible, The Lacuna, and Flight Behavior: A Novel. Raised in rural, Kingsolver earned degrees in biology at DePauw University and the University of Arizona and worked as a freelance writer before she began writing novels. She currently resides in southwestern Virginia.

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