When I saw a novel by Barbara Kingsolver sitting on the “New” display at Barnes & Noble before Christmas, I snatched it up conspiratorially. I bought it and hid it because I thought for sure someone would be giving it to me for Christmas, I’m such a fan of Kingsolver fiction.
But I was safe. No one gave it to me for Christmas, so Unsheltered was the first book I cracked open when I made a New Year’s resolution to read 26 books this year.
As much as I anticipated it, it was a weird one starting out. Another reviewer described the beginning as a lecture in world economics, finance and domestic politics. Kingsolver also introduces 10 characters in two families living in two centuries in the first two chapters. It wasn’t easy to keep everything straight but I persevered, and I was rewarded.
It’s a thinker, tackling difficult subjects like parenting, unemployment and entomology. If you’re looking for an escape from your unending bills or your insufferable in-laws or your know-it-all 20something kid or the ants in your yard, you won’t find a respite here—they all play a role in Unsheltered.
As usual in Kingsolver novels, she throws in some history, some real people, some food, and some memorable characters. She mixes all the prickly parts together and gets a pretty good story, heavy on metaphor, I think. If you’ve read Kingsolver’s Lacuna or The Poisonwood Bible, you know what you’re in for.
As for the real people, one of the historical figures in this story is Mary Treat, a lady scientist who lived in Vineland, New Jersey, during the second half of the 19th century, when the historical part of this novel is set. Kingsolver’s noteworthy research brings Treat to life on these pages. Another real person is the Bullhorn, clearly a description of Donald Trump, who was running away with the Republican primaries during the course of the modern part of the book. Just a warning: If you’re a Trump fan, you might not like Unsheltered; Kingsolver is clearly not a fan, and Trump is a two-dimensional villain here.
The novel’s title comes from another character in the book: A house in Vineland where both families live. It’s falling down in both centuries, a crumbling, leaking, poorly built structure that barely keeps it together through the story. The title also addresses how the world looks when it becomes apparent the emperor has no clothes. In the late 19th century, the world is faced with scientific discoveries that turn religious belief, especially the belief that God created man from his own image and woman from one of man’s ribs, on its head (Charles Darwin plays a big role in Unsheltered). In the 21st century, the main character Willa, who believes people who work hard deserve a nice house and their children deserve more than their parents, is confronted with evidence to the contrary.
As mentioned, Unsheltered makes one think. About economic growth. About what babies and aging women deserve. About recycling. Even about press freedom. And if a fictional novel can do all that, it’s saying something. That’s a story worth reading.