Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver is not the first book by this author that I have read. I have enjoyed her writing since her first book, The Bean Trees, appeared in 1988. I have also read Pigs in Heaven, Prodigal Summer, Flight Behavior, and The Poisonwood Bible (although I think I read all these books before I joined goodreads.com).
Kingsolver is an environmentalist who likes to use fiction to call attention to the havoc human excesses wreak on nature. She does it subtly, but unmistakably in very readable novels, that reflect the changing zeitgeist of the 30 years she, and we, have lived through since she started writing.
Her inspiration for Unsheltered came when she learned of a woman scientist named Mary Treat and she was given access to her notes and correspondence. Dr. Treat was a woman ahead of her time, a wife who thrived when her husband left her. She was fascinated by the plants and insects that lived in the Pine Barrens that were near her home. She filled her living room with small jars that look like terraria, but each contained a tower-building spider (small variety of tarantula).
Mary Treat wrote letters to Charles Darwin, who had recently published his Origin of the Species, a book that seemed to refute God, and set the world on fire, and he wrote back. She wrote to Dr. Asa Gray and he also answered her letters. Mary Treat is real, and a truly interesting woman. Thatcher Greenwood is also real. When he married his wife Rose, her family owned the house next door to Mary Treat. Thatcher Greenwood was hired to teach science in a high school run by a man who believed Darwin to be an abomination. The house he is living in was poorly built and is falling apart, as is his life.
A parallel story 150 years after Darwin’s book was published, gives us a family of the Trump era, living in the second incarnation of Thatcher Greenwood’s house, which was rebuilt by a second someone, equally without regard for sound building principals. A twice-unlucky house. When Willa’s family inherits the house in New Jersey from her Aunt, it is at a time when the economy is changing for everyone. Willa, a writer, loves her solid career footing but then the magazine she writes for fails. If she stays in New Jersey she will have to accept freelance writing jobs. Iano, her husband, a professor of political science cannot find a path to tenure, and in middle age is still working as an adjunct.
Their son, Zeke, is left, tragically, with a baby son, who he leaves with Willa to try for a tech startup with his college roommate. He owes $110,000 in college loans which he must pay off. Tig, their daughter, is an enigma as a member of what seems to be a whole new generation. She is a dynamic, pint-sized activist with dreadlocks who lived in Cuba for a year and took part in the Occupy movement. Tig (short for Antigone) may have the best grasp on our new shifting social landscape.
The house is what ties the two eras together and the two “evolutionary” women, Mary Treat and Antigone Tavoularis (Tig). As the house falls down around the inhabitants some find it extremely unsettling and others find it strangely freeing.
Kingsolver is a queen of dialogue, which makes her novels flow easily along, in spite of how dense the content seems after the fact. It was interesting that she never mentioned the modern folks who still deny Darwin and the sneaky tactics they often employ to make it mandatory to teach “Creationism” in 21st century schools. She may not have wanted to focus on something more political than environmental. The literary device that has us skipping back and forth over 150 years in every other chapter makes the reader look forward to getting back to the story line that will be taken up in the next chapter.
We have wandered pretty far from nature and I wonder how many of us would feel comfortable without a home base. Is there a generational divide, or will that disappear as mature responsibilities must be met? Will we have to learn to respect nature and live in greater harmony, without many of the creature comforts that we have convinced ourselves prove that we are above other living things. Will we ever be able to overcome our sense of superiority and separateness which allows us to believe that our survival trumps (sorry) theirs? Will we ever learn to feel our organic connection to every living and nonliving thing on this planet?
Engaging our thoughts is a hallmark of a skilled author. I can’t decide if the separation in time is so large that this felt more like two stories that blinked on and off like lights or if the connections are powerful enough to unify the novel. However this is a relatively insignificant flaw which was not jarring enough to ruin my enjoyment of Barbara Kingsolver’s book, Unsheltered.
Photo Credit: From a Google Image Search – KUOW