by Barbara Kingsolver, 2018
In Unsheltered, Barbara Kingsolver is back on top form. In over 500 deliciously-written pages, she captures the shortcomings of capitalism and the American Dream through the eyes of one mother trying to literally stop her house from falling down around her family. While Willa’s economist son believes in the power of the free market to solve climate change and social injustice, her socialist environmentalist daughter is driven by a belief that the current system is on its last legs and, inspired by her experiences living in Cuba, draws around her a rag-tag bunch of barterers, up-cyclers and minimalists. In the midst of it all, Willa struggles to care for her dying racist ranting father-in-law and a new grandson, with no money and a house that is falling apart.
In parallel with the story of Willa’s family is the story of Thatcher Greenwood, who lives in a house on the same plot of land in 1874. Thatcher is a forward-thinking science teacher and firm believer in Darwin’s theory of evolution. He befriends Mary Treat, a real-life 19th Century botanist, who regularly correspondended with Darwin, Asa Gray and other scientists of the day.
These two stories, separated by 140 years, are set in Vineland, the town founded by Charles Landis, who features in both stories. Both Unsheltered’s timelines plot the systematic and painstaking discoveries of science against a majority that refuses to give up its misguided beliefs. Thatcher is branded an indecent heretic and barred from teaching Darwin to his students, while Willa battles against the logical conclusion of capitalism – the scarcity of food and shelter for the many, against a backdrop of extreme climate change.
Kingsolver is at her best in her environmental novels. Most famous for The Poisonwood Bible, her writing is more usually set firmly in the heart of the US, in stories set against the backdrop of place, home and change. I felt she had lost her way somewhat in The Lacuna, with a protagonist who was more a cipher than a fully-realised person, but she was back on track with Flight Behaviour, a novel about butterflies, pesticides and climate change, with characters more akin to those of her early novels.
Unsheltered is a more ambitious novel than Flight Behaviour, with contemporary and historical characters real and believable, living the macro world in the microcosm of their living rooms. As with some other novels, she includes historical figures and events, in this case Charles Landis and Mary Treat in the New Jersey Temperance Town created by Landis in the 1860s. Although I am sometimes uncomfortable with novelists putting words into the mouths of historical figures, in the case of Unsheltered, it didn’t feel forced or untruthful.
Kingsolver is a feminist environmentalist novelist. The strength and beauty of her writing comes in her sympathetically written characters, in the crises they face, and in now they deal with those crises. Unsheltered is her most fully realized feminist environmentalist novel to date and I was hooked from page one.