Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver

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Reviewed by Rod McLary

Unsheltered is a story of two families who lived in the same house in the small town of Vineland in New Jersey but 145 years apart – the first in 1871 and the second in 2016.  What links the families – apart from the house – is the first family’s neighbour Mary Treat.  Mary is a self-taught biologist who corresponds with leading scientific thinkers of the day including Charles Darwin.  Even though Unsheltered is a work of fiction, Mary Treat was a real person of renown – and a number of the 19th century characters and events described in the novel are also real.

The first family – the Greenwoods – comprises Thatcher a science teacher, his wife Rose, Rose’s sister Polly and their mother Aurelia.  Their neighbour Mary engages the attention of the Greenwoods through her rather eccentric behaviour.  On one occasion, she is seen lying on the grass studying the behaviour of ants.  Through an accidental meeting with Mary, Thatcher recognises a kindred spirit in her and a platonic but close friendship develops which has benefits for both.  Thatcher teaches in a school which refuses to acknowledge the importance of science and his tenure beyond hist first year is uncertain.

In 2016, Willa Knox and her husband Iano Tavoularis, her father-in-law Nick, their daughter Tig and their son Zeke and his son Dusty move to Vineland when Iano accepts a posting at the local university.  Iano lost tenure at his previous posting, Willa is a free-lance journalist, Tig – the activist daughter – has returned home after many years in Cuba, and Zeke is reeling from a tragedy and has a new-born son.

The link between the two families – the house both then and now – is dilapidated and at serious risk of collapsing.  Mistakenly, Willa believes that Mary Treat once lived in the house and consequently Willa and Iano may be eligible for an historical house grant to restore the house.  Partly to satisfy the requirements of the funding application, and partly through an increasing interest in Mary, Willa is drawn into researching the history of the house, its owners and neighbours and, by extension, into the history of the town and some of its more colourful characters.

The novel is structured so chapters on each of the families alternate.  Keen-eyed readers may notice that the last few words of each chapter form the title of the following chapter – thus further supporting the connection between the families.  The language and tone of the alternating chapters reflect the different eras in which the families lived.  There is a formality in both the written and spoken language of the Greenwood chapters while the Knox chapters are imbued with modern American vernacular and its informality. This contrast in language and style never jars or grates but instead adds a verisimilitude to the characters and their social contexts.

Mary Treat says of herself – I probably take too much pride in what I know, because I have had to teach all of it to myself.  I appreciate your praise but you overestimate.  My colleagues are as remote to me as archangels. [149]

Willa’s son Zeke says of his new venture – They have been after me to talk stuff over, so we finally had this crazy Bluetooth conference call with Little Big Mouth raging in the background. [65]

Interestingly, in describing the tension between Thatcher Greenwood with his belief in science and the Principal of the school in which he teaches with his fundamentalist view of biblical history, the novel foreshadows the famous ‘monkey trial’ in 1925.  At that trial – more accurately called The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes – a substitute high school teacher, John T. Scopes, was accused of violating Tennessee‘s Butler Act, which had made it unlawful to teach human evolution in any state-funded school. Scopes was found guilty although the decision was later overturned on a technicality.

As the Principal states – These gifts [that is, man’s free will, fall and redemption] cannot be reconciled with any story of our creation except the divine.  Children, do not let yourselves be degraded.  [274]

While Thatcher did not go to court for his beliefs, he was required to publicly defend them at an event which ultimately led to his dismissal from his position and the collapse of his family.  The family leaves the house and, 145 years later, Willa and her family move in.

Willa’s residency takes place during the Presidential election of 2016 and, although the Republican candidate Donald Trump is not mentioned by name, his beliefs figure significantly in the story.  Willa’s father-in-law Nick – who is dying – in his unrelenting support for Trump articulates the issues facing certain social groups in the States who saw Trump as the saviour of an America which no longer exists.  The counter-view propounded by Willa and Tig in particular provides an opportunity for the author to set out the political and social tensions within the country and its uncertain place in the world.

The recurring themes in Kingsolver’s novels are found in this book.  Her understanding of persons struggling for social equality [especially as experienced by immigrants, the working poor, and single mothers] finds full expression in the narrative concerning the Central American neighbours of Willa and her family. Her other common theme – the balancing of individuality with the desire to live in a community – is expressed in the experience of almost every character but particularly of Willa, Tig and Mary Treat.

The interaction and conflict between humans and the ecosystems in which they live is an underpinning theme in the novel which finds expression in the exploration by Mary and Thatcher of the woods surrounding Vineland.  Even in 1871, the depredation of the woods is beginning to be seen.

Unsheltered is a skilfully written novel which explores the dynamics of family and community – with an added touch of environmental sensitivity.  The characters are engaging and the reader can empathise with the day-to-day vicissitudes of their family lives.  The title itself suggests exposure to the elements and the benefits of honesty and clarity.  It is an appropriate title for a novel which exposes small-town life in America.

Unsheltered

[2018]

by Barbara Kingsolver

HarperCollins/Allen & Unwin

ISBN 978 0 571 34701 8

480pp; $32.99

 

 

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