'Unsheltered' challenges readers with interwoven tales from two different eras

The power of Barbara Kingsolver’s writing illuminates the current cultural climate by finding parallels with the past in this novel divided between the 21st and 19th centuries.

Unsheltered By Barbara Kingsolver Harper 480 pp.

“What I know for sure is that stories will get us through times of no leadership better than leaders will get us through times of no stories.”

Taken from the foreword of Barbara Kingsolver’s latest novel, this sentiment might seem reassuring. Or it might serve as caution – the immensely readable Unsheltered is not escapist reading. It plunges the reader into contentious views of the environment, political leaders, and the media, to name but a few. But the fictional tale uses the past to illuminate the current cultural climate. And it does so through Kingsolver’s exquisite writing.

The book depicts two interwoven tales, both based in Vineland, N.J., in a house that, though beautiful, vexes its owners. One story is set in contemporary time, the other in mid-19th-century. Kingsolver alternates chapters between the two eras and anchors the narratives by using the last words of each chapter as the apt title of the next, an enjoyable technique to watch unfold.

The book opens with the contemporary story of Willa, a woman who inherits an historic house only to discover it to be structurally unsound, another disappointment in an excruciating year. The house might serve as a metaphor for her family. She and her husband, a professor, find themselves cast adrift after a lifetime of seemingly doing everything right, everything they were “supposed” to do. She edited a magazine; he pursued tenure. The two raised their now-adult children while also looking after his aging father. And now, it seems, everything is coming apart.

The earlier tale appears to take place in the same house and, while fictional, is steeped in the factual history of Vineland, a once-thriving Utopian community. This narrative centers on a young couple that share the house with her mother and younger sister. They’ve experienced a reversal of fortunes following the passing of the father and the family looks to the planned community, with its fashionable landscapes and well-attended community lectures, as a buffer from the riffraff of the world.

That is, the women of the family do. The young husband, Thatcher, teaches science at the local school. He chafes against the edict of the approved curriculum, one based on the Creation story that forbids any mention of the silliness recently published by a man named Darwin. With only an annual employment contract hanging over his head, Thatcher feels torn between his desire to provide the financial security his new wife craves and the integrity of scientific pursuits.

Living next door is a scientist named Mary Treat. She publishes her botany research and corresponds with colleagues whom Thatcher has only read about in books, Charles Darwin among them. Her life as a woman scientist runs counter to the expectations of the time, of course. But Treat’s life story is part of the factual history of Vineland, the scrim on which Kingsolver embroiders her fictional tale.

In the book, Treat and Thatcher both seek scientific truth rather than the hollow assurances of Vineland’s founder, Mr. Landis. Treat helps Thatcher prepare to deliver one of those community lectures which, under the guise of enlightening citizens about current topics, is actually designed to expose Thatcher as someone ill-suited to be a member of their idyllic community, a heretic who believes the notion that man descended from monkeys.

It frustrates the two scientists when their neighbors, presented with verifiable evidence, refuse to acknowledge facts. To do so, of course, would upend the more comforting notions fed to them by Landis who promises to make their community great.

This perspective carries through to the next chapter, the contemporary tale, where Willa argues with her daughter, an activist, who is frustrated by peoples’ denial of climate change. But to acknowledge these scientific facts, of course, would upend their comforting notions. With each chapter, Kingsolver illustrates her contemporary tale with parallels from the 19th century, examples of community conflicts but also of the power of family and simple kindness.

But it is a murder – conducted by a charismatic leader who stands in the middle of the avenue and shoots someone in broad daylight, certain that no one will care – that threatens to disrupt the idyllic community. That the victim is a newspaper publisher who dares to print the truth, not the reassuring storyline everyone clings to, only darkens the tale.

That part of the story, by the way, is true.

While “Unsheltered” is not a fanciful tale offering a respite from contentious issues of our day, it does remind of us that truth and compassion help us adapt and endure. We’ve been here before and we managed to find our way to better times. If Kingsolver is correct, stories like these might help us get there.

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