Often controversial, Barbara Kingsolver, best known for her novels The Poisonwood Bible and The Lacuna, is generally loved by the left and mocked by conservatives. She likes to examine how people relate to moral and social justice issues.
Tig, short for Antigone, is at the centre of Unsheltered. With her Scottish-Greek genes, fiery temperament and dreadlocked hair, she holds uncompromising views on the failings of those people running the world. She is kind to her wheelchair- bound, alt-right sympathising grandfather because he can do no further harm, and has an amusing supply of Greek curses. Her financial adviser brother, Zeke, a Harvard graduate, she has less time for.
Although Tig’s mother, journalist Willa Knox, is the main voice in this novel, it is Tig who provides the reader with bracing nous and suss. She astounds her mother, who reflects thus: “Who could begin to interpret these kids’ moral language, with the wires of political correctness, outrage and irony carefully crossed so as to keep out anyone too old to grasp Lady Gaga.” This is said after Tig joins the The Feebleminders volunteer group growing veggies at a school previously called For the Feebleminded.
Returned home after a spell of living in Cuba, Tig finds her parents, despite their tertiary education and years of work, living in an old house inherited from a relative. Not only are they strapped for cash, they also have Tig’s grandfather living with them, and occupying what was to have been Willa’s home office. Willa’s professional life is sidelined as she is pulled back into caring responsibilities, not only of grandfather, but also the newborn son of Zeke, whose mother has died by suicide.
Kingsolver manages, by dint of Willa’s wry and astute take on life so far, to make this serious set of circumstances surprisingly cheerful. The novel is set in New Jersey, in Vinelands, a suburb created by a charismatic property developer in the 1870s, who lured Italian families into this project with promises of prosperity but exploited them quite ruthlessly. The houses he built were not sound, and it is in one of these that, in 2016, Willa and her family are now seeking refuge.
A second narrative set in 1871 runs alongside that of Willa and family. This is the story of Thatcher Greenwood, who had been a science teacher in Vinelands’ new school. Thatcher’s family lived in the house Willa and family now occupy.
Being unsheltered manifests in this ongoing saga of unaffordable house repairs, which loom over the difficulties of family life.
Thatcher’s household consists of three women of whom his 12-year-old sister-in-law is the most sympathetic and intelligent. But he soon makes friends with their neighbour, Mary Treat, a botanist who is in correspondence with Darwin. This character is based on a real historical figure whom Kingsolver works into her novel with skill and insight. Thatcher and Mary’s friendship thrives in an era when people were thrown into confusion and anger by Darwin’s theory of evolution. Thatcher’s hounding by his school principal and the property developer, Landis, is wonderfully set out in public debates, and this part of the novel is lightened by Mary and Thatcher’s excursions to the countryside in search of botanical specimens.
Mary also observes insects in her garden, and has several female tarantulas living in big glass jars in her study. This species builds octagonal tower nests using twigs. Kingsolver constructs her novel as precisely as a lady tarantula, securing each strand of the story and using the last words of the previous chapter as the heading of the next one. She takes the reader through the various arguments and debates, effortlessly connecting the many strands in this novel. It is an engaging and easy read that deals with insecurity and the sudden changes we find ourselves in today — economic stress, failure of capitalism, climate change and an uncertain, probably unsheltered, future.
Willa reassesses her relationship with her daughter and learns from her. It’s a humbling experience for Willa when she realises where she has failed as a mother and begins to realise that her generation has no clue how to cope with what lies ahead as the demagogues, warmongers and climate denialists seem to be taking over.
Looking at Tig and her Puerto Rican boyfriend, his sisters and their network of barterers, Willa says: “Millennials she thought she knew: the overmothered cyborgs helplessly sunk in their virtual worlds. From what planet came this new, slightly feral tribe of fixers, makers and barterers, she had no idea.”
Kingsolver examines how people cope with change and new ideas. In the earlier narrative there’s an interesting collaboration between the populist property developer and Thatcher’s headmaster, who abhors scientific method and Darwin equally. Thatcher’s only supporter in Vinelands is a newspaperman who is summarily dealt with. The resonances with the recent history of the United States are many and clear.
Mary encourages Thatcher and says his first responsibility to his pupils is to let them “see evidence for themselves, and not to fear it … to stand in the clear light of day. Unsheltered.”