Barbara Kingsolver does not shy away from the big issues: global warming, nationalism, capitalism, consumerism, health care, the collapsing American Dream, and an entrenched body politic. In UNSHELTERED, you will find all of these. There’s a little Trump in there, too (he’s referred to as the Bullhorn) but there’s more about his policies and how they affect average Americans. Some people are turned off by Kingsolver’s politics, and consider her books to be too heavy-handed or didactic, but desperate times require desperate measures. Besides, Kingsolver knows how to spin a yarn.
UNSHELTERED weaves together two seemingly disparate stories with one crumbling house at its center. Willa Knox, our contemporary protagonist, and her husband Iano, have done everything right: they’ve gone to college, raised two children, invested in their 40lK plans and looked forward to pensions and retirement. But after Iano loses his tenured position as a college professor, and Willa’s magazine folds, they find themselves living in a dilapidated old house bequeathed to them by an aunt, without jobs or pensions and with their two adult children, a grandson, and a crotchety, racist, dying father living under their collapsing roof.
In a parallel narrative set in 1870, Thatcher Greenwood, living in the same home, is a science teacher struggling to teach contemporary scientific thought in a society that eschews Darwinism and holds fast to creationist theories. Thatcher befriends naturalist Mary Treat, a real-life scientist who regularly corresponded with Charles Darwin, and who embraces both faith and fact.
One of the things I admire most about UNSHELTERED, is the dialogue between the characters. Willa and Ione’s son Zeke and daughter Tig spar regularly about capitalism and consumerism. Tig is articulate and has a lived experience that far outweighs her brother’s Ivy league education. Thatcher admires Mary Treat’s research and regards her with the respect of a colleague, something out of the ordinary in the early part of the 19th Century. When Thatcher debates scientific theory with the dogmatic Principal of his school, his restraint and his adherence to the facts left me wanting to whoop and shout.
Kingsolver’s characters must give up their preconceived notions of what constitutes success and happiness, each generation entrenched in their way of thinking and being. Perhaps Mary Treat says it best of all:
“Their little families have come here looking for safety, but they will go on laboring under old authorities until their heaven collapses. Your charge is to lead them out of doors. Teach them to see evidence for themselves, and not to fear it. . . to stand in the clear light of day . . . unsheltered.”
I recommend UNSHELTERED for fans of Rachel Carson, and those who enjoyed Elizabeth Gilbert’s THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS or Marie Benedict’s THE OTHER EINSTEIN.