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Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver

Over the past few months, I have spent a significant percentage of my free time reading the literary fiction titles published this fall that have generated the most pre-publication buzz. That has made for a fair amount of good reading, some disappointing reading and a little bit of truly great reading. Of the many works of fiction I've read since Labor Day, my current favorite (subject to change because I've just started Tana French's The Witch Elm, and it's GOOD) is Barbara Kingsolver's newest novel Unsheltered.

Barbara Kingsolver was born in 1955 and was raised in rural Kentucky. She earned degrees in biology from DePauw University and the University of Arizona and has been a full-time writer since 1985.  Kingsolver is the author of 15 works of fiction and nonfiction. She published her first novel, The Bean Trees, in 1988. The Poisonwood Bible was an Oprah Book Club pick, won the National Book Award of South Africa and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. The Lacuna won the Orange Prize in 2010. Her books have been translated into more than two dozen languages, and several are part of the core English curriculum in high schools and colleges throughout the country. In 1998 she established what is now known as the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction. Kingsolver was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2000 and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize in 2011. After living in Tucson for 20 years, she moved to a farm in southern Virginia in 2004. She is married and has two daughters.

Unsheltered contains two intertwined stories, both set in Vineland, a real town in New Jersey that was founded by Charles Landis as a utopian community in the 1860s. In the first narrative, set in the present, Willa Knox and her husband Iano Tavoilaris are living in an inherited home in Vineland after the magazine Willa edited and the college where Iano taught both closed for lack of funds. They are taking care of Iano's father, who is in declining health. Their daughter Tig (short for Antigone) has just returned home after living in Cuba for several years. And their son Zeke has left his infant son in their care after his girlfriend commits suicide. In other words, their home, which is in disrepair, is bursting at the seams. When Willa contacts a local contractor for help with the much-needed work on the house, she discovers that it lacks a foundation and that even the minimum work required to fix it is beyond their means. In an effort to earn an historical preservation grant for the house, Willa begins to research its earlier inhabitants.

It's at this point that the second narrative begins. Thacher Greenwood, his young wife and his imposing mother-in-law have moved to Vineland in the 1870s so that Thacher can teach science at the local high school. They live in the house that Willa and Iano will inherit almost 150 years in the future. Even then, the home is unstable, and the costs to repair it are more than the family can afford. Thacher soon becomes friendly with his impressive neighbor Mary Treat, a  self-taught naturalist who corresponds with Charles Darwin and supports herself as a science writer.  As Thacher and Mary grow closer, Thacher's support for Darwin's ideas infuriates both Charles Landis and the high school principal, threatening his job and his marriage.

At heart, Unsheltered is an examination of what happens when people's assumptions about the world and their place in it are challenged. Vineland, founded in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, promised a safe haven. As Mary Treat remarks: "When men fear the loss of what they know, they will follow any tyrant who promises to restore the old order." Thacher's introduction of Darwin's ideas into this supposed utopia is unwelcome. Willa and Iano, who have worked hard their entire lives, find themselves having to start over while saddled with $100,000 in student loans and an ailing parent with limited health-care options: "It's like the rules don't apply anymore. Or we learned one set, and then somebody switched them out." Willa and Thacher's stories are told in alternating chapters, each in its distinctive way, but the stories reverberate with provocative parallels and echoes as the main characters grapple with what it means not to rely on old beliefs about how the world works.

Kingsolver has always woven her political views into her writing, and her new novel is no exception. Writing in the Washington Post, Ron Charles calls Unsheltered "the first major novel to tackle the Trump era straight on and place it in the larger chronicle of existential threats." Accordingly, the book is filed with big ideas and hard concepts as it powerfully evokes how unnerving it can be to live in times of social turmoil. And yet the novel is also filled with warmth, and the writing is accessible and very engaging. Each narrative has its own mood and voice, but the underlying unity of the story is clear.  I found Willa to be a sympathetic and relatable heroine, Tig to be a faithful representation of a generation that is trying to figure out where to go from here, and Thacher's struggle to introduce Darwin's ideas into a religious society familiar and frustrating.  Mary Treat is a particularly delightful discovery and in many ways the heart of the story. As Kingsolver writes in her introduction to the novel, "I happened across Mary Treat, an important Darwin correspondent whose work is virtually unknown. I called the historical society in Vineland, New Jersey, where her papers are kept, and the curator said, 'You won't believe what we've got.' She was right."

In other words, these characters feel like people I know, or could have known. Here are good, decent souls who are trying to figure out the way forward in a world that seems to be falling apart, just like the house they live in. In that sense, it is a faithful and real depiction of how I think many of us feel these days -- uncertain of the future and exhausted by the effort to understand how others see the world. Interspersed with all this, though, are small moments of comfort and real joy.  This is not a novel with solutions, but it does remind us that we've been here before, and that there is happiness to be found in family, in love, and in friendship. I am an unabashed Kingsolver fan, and while my favorite of her novels remains Flight Behavior, her last book before this one, Unsheltered is a very worthy successor.


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