In Barbara Kingsolver’s latest novel, “Unsheltered,” Willa Knox and her family are falling apart. While grieving her mother’s recent death, Willa loses her job as a magazine editor. Her husband Iano Tavoularis’ Virginia college shutters its doors, taking with it his secure, tenure-track position. After they move to Vineland, N.J., to an old house Willa inherits from an aunt, their contractor delivers the news that it’s a death trap in need of extensive and expensive repairs. And Willa and Iano are flat broke.
Vineland is a humble, family-friendly town and Kingsolver deftly unravels its fascinating little-known history. “Vineland could have been anytown, of any industrial era … these old houses with their ornate trim and bay windows were holding the confidences of centuries.” While attempting to scrape together the money to fix their humble abode, caring for Iano’s belligerent father Nick, and butting heads with her “complicated” adult daughter, Tig, Willa considers her and her husband’s unexpected station in life. “How could two hardworking people do everything right in life and arrive in their 50s essentially destitute?”
When the wife of Willa’s son Zeke suddenly dies, Willa must raise their newborn baby Aldus, whose piercing screams make it impossible for her to find the time to write enough articles to pay the bills, while also comforting Zeke as he faces an unimaginable loss. “A new parent should be joyful. Not widowed, deserted, bankrupt, bereft of every comfort he’d carefully built for himself. For months to come, waking up would feel as violent for Zeke as for a newborn. Maybe for years.” Indeed, Willa is not only tasked with saving their home, she is tasked with saving the very family that dwells in it.
Amid this despair, Kingsolver shifts to the 1870s where Thatcher Greenwood, a man with a “name out of a novel,” secures his dream position as a science teacher at a local Vineland school and takes up residence in the old house Willa would inhabit in the future. “Botany and zoology were the sugarplums that danced in his head, and would likewise dance —he felt sure — in these nascent minds once they were properly introduced to the natural sciences.” Soon thereafter he befriends his neighbor Mary Treat, a character based on the real-life scientist who turned Vineland’s natural landscape into her laboratory and conducted experiments that confirmed and shed new light on her pen pal Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.
Over tea and snacks, Greenwood and Treat bemoan the state of their respective marriages and discuss how the controversary across the pond over “The Origin of Species” and “The Descent of Man” has recently reached their own shores. Greenwood, enamored of Treat’s intellect, passion and dedication, treasures their friendship. “How did a person come to be Mary Treat? He could stand all day watching energy, logic and indifference to judgment combine with such glorious force.” When Greenwood’s school administration turns on him for introducing the impressionable young minds of South Jersey to Darwin, Mary stands by to support him.
Mary’s unsung genius is uncovered by Willa 150 years later, as she researches her Victorian home’s historic roots with the hopes it once belonged to Mary and therefore might qualify for a grant for restitution. And though they are living in two separate eras, Willa and Thatcher embark on parallel journeys to rebuild the tumultuous worlds in which they find themselves and resist systems that run counter to their own theories about survival. In this sense, “Unsheltered” is an intriguing study about how the past seems to reach out of nowhere to shape the future.
Few authors write the natural world as luminously as Kingsolver. As in her previous books, Kingsolver’s prose is an ode to the surroundings her characters inhabit. “They both went quiet watching a heron stalk through reeds at the creek’s margin. With each stilted step the long head slid forward on a smooth horizontal axis. Thatcher knew the danger in that serpentine head and neck, the forceful thrust of his knife-like beak.”
Some of the characters, though, border on the outlandish. Tig, the proud white alum of Occupy Wall Street who wears dreadlocks and has recently returned from a stint in Cuba, lectures so vigorously about the toxicity of capitalism that dinner table chatter feels more like a Ted Talk binge. Iano’s father Nick, who recalls the atrocities of the Greek Civil War with precision, spews racial slurs incessantly with no real narrative purpose except, one can only assume, to make Willa’s life more hellish than it already is. Even Willa’s own subtle racism — her silent imitation of African-American vernacular, her persistent curiosity about the Puerto Rican family next door, and her projection about Zeke’s new Indian girlfriend —grows tiresome quickly.
Willa’s plight as a nearly homeless, uninsured, underemployed freelance journalist in her mid-50s reflects those of legions of women facing both ageism and poverty while attempting to carve out a career in publishing. But Kingsolver has hurled so many hardships at Willa — a terminally ill and vulgar father-in-law; a directionless, newly widowed son; a colicky, motherless grandson; a kind but largely ineffective husband; a preachy, insufferable daughter; a naïve college student infatuated with her husband; all while an unnamed white supremacist runs for president – that we lose sight of her. One wishes Kingsolver had dedicated more pages to the obstacles Mary Treat must have faced as a woman scientist in the late 1800s, instead of heaping so many misfortunes on Willa.
This criticism is not a fatal one, though. “Unsettled” is an ambitious undertaking that succeeds in illuminating a forgotten chapter in history as its characters evolve toward restoration and recovery. “First they would stagger, then grow competent, and then forget the difficulty altogether while thinking of other things, and that was survival.”