Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver
HarperCollins, 480 pp.
By Robert Allen Papinchak
Barbara Kingsolver’s 19th book of fiction (after Flight Behavior, 2012), the exhilarating Unsheltered, is a study in comparisons, contrasts, and changes. She takes a seemingly easy metaphor—a house in shambles—and mines it for its rich personal, historical, and political assets.
In the late nineteenth century, in what was the “tittle tattle village” of Vineland, New Jersey, the house in question at the corner of Sixth and Plum was owned by Thatcher Greenwood, a high school science teacher. In 2016, the year of a transformative presidential election, it is the home that shelters Willa Knox, a journalist in her mid-fifties, her husband, Iano Tavoularis, a college professor of global politics, and their extended family—their daughter, son, his newborn, and an ailing parent.
Kingsolver’s narrative structure allows each character’s story to be told in alternating chapters. Stylistically, each chapter ends with a word or two that becomes the title of the next chapter. This allows the chapters and the stories to be linked.
For instance, the opening chapter, “Falling House,” while establishing the overall theme of the novel, ends with “’We’re all beginners,’” which leads into chapter two, “Beginners,” about the early days of the house. A chapter which ends with a reference to the classical story of Scylla and Charybdis becomes the names of two dogs in the next one. Another, ending with a reference to an actual cake leads into a metaphorical analogy. Others have more serious interpretations of The Treasure Chest of Time or Mr. Occam’s Razor. And the definitive connection of chapters that end and begin with “Shelter in Place.”
The comparisons start with Willa and Thatcher. Her area of expertise is health and science; his, a promulgator of Darwin’s theory of evolution. Their histories collide when Willa investigates the background to the house.
Willa’s story is up first. She wonders how “two hardworking people [who did] everything right in life [could] arrive in their fifties essentially destitute.” The immediate answer to that question is a simple one: the magazine she worked for folded; the college where her husband taught closed. Their home in Virginia has no market value because it was on the college’s land. They move to New Jersey because she inherited the house there.
Her search for the history of the house is triggered by the need to find financial resources to make necessary repairs on the structure—from the foundation up. A contractor’s advice is to demolish the building. The house is falling down around and sometimes on top of them. The plumbing and heating aren’t functional; a back staircase and a bedroom ceiling collapse.
Thatcher’s story, based on actual people and events, is similar. The fact that his house in 1875 is as much in disrepair as it is in 2016 is the least of his worries. At home, recently married, his wife—who owns the house—has interests only in social climbing. At work, he butts heads with the town founder, Charles Landis, who is opposed to his teaching of Darwin’s theories. His only soul mate is Mary Treat, his neighbor, a well-known botanist who corresponds with Darwin. Thatcher and Mary strike up a friendship which threatens both of their reputations.
The public feud between Thatcher and Landis gains the attention of Uri Carruth, the editor of the Independent, a town newspaper in direct competition with the Landis supported Weekly. The masthead of the Independent declares “The Liberty of the Press Is the Safeguard of a Free People.”
Just as a 2016 candidate for the presidency “insulted every minority” and “’said he could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody,’” Landis believes he is above the law. The many- sided conflict leads to a scandal that escalates to a murder covered by national media.
Much of the appeal of Kingsolver’s alluring novel is the intertwined narratives that contrast historic changes from the past with the present. This is particularly true when characters in both periods take excursions to the village of Batsto in the Pine Barrens. It is an inexorable movement to connect both stories. When Thatcher and Mary visit in the past to collect seeds and to study the environment, Batsto is “horrid with mills and liquor,” a thriving community of candlemakers and blacksmiths, laborers “dredging up bog ore for the ironworks.” In the present, it is a tourist attraction with volunteers dressed in period costumes, making candles, baking bread, and laboring in reconstructed log cabins.
The book’s title has a number of interpretations with perhaps one ultimate meaning. Without shelter “we feel ourselves likely to die.” Without shelter is to “’stand in the clear light of day’” exposed to the truth of the survival of the fittest.
It is “’dangerous times’” for the Knoxes and the Greenwoods. Both families battle forces from within and without. Mary observes that “’[w]hen men fear the loss of what they know, they will follow any tyrant who promises to restore the old order.’”
In a note to readers, Kingsolver believes that “the world as we knew it [is] ending . . . Things we’ve always counted on [are] falling apart: civil governance, generous patriotism, a secure pension at the end of a life’s work.” As Unsheltered moves from the present to the past and back again, it examines “a paradigm shift—a time when we have to question some basic assumptions about how we live.” Kingsolver’s triumphant achievement is that she creates contemporary and historical families who demonstrate the need for believing in the enduring nature of truth and justice. In other words, plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.
Robert Allen Papinchak, a former university English professor, has reviewed fiction for newspapers, magazines, and journals including the New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, the Seattle Times, USA Today, People, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, and others. Currently, in addition to the National Book Review, he writes for the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Washington Independent Review of Books, the New York Journal of Books, World Literature Today, the Strand Magazine, Mystery Scene, and more. His short fiction has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and received a Story award. He is the author of Sherwood Anderson: A Study of the Short Fiction.