Wednesday, December 05, 2018
Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver
Willa Knox and her Greek-American husband, Iano, have worked hard their entire adult lives. Maybe too hard, as their daughter Tig feels like she was slighted and their son Zeke seems to be following in their footsteps, leaving the care of his baby to Willa and Tig after a tragic loss. After Iano lost his tenure and their home its value when his college employer shut down, they've been forced to move into a dilapidated house in Vineland, New Jersey they've inherited. The home was not built right in the first place and the best option is to tear it down and build a new home on the property. But, they simply don't have the money. Desperate to find a way to come up with the money to repair the property, journalist Willa goes to the local historical society in the hope of finding historical occupants who may lead to grant money for preservation of the home.
In the 1880s, science teacher Thatcher Greenwood has recently moved into the home his wife's father built, along with his new wife, mother-in-law, sister-in-law, and their two dogs. While tracking down the dogs one day, he discovers that his next-door neighbor is a botanist of some reknown who corresponds with Charles Darwin and Asa Gray. As he gets to know his neighbor, Thatcher discovers they share a belief in the same scientific framework proposed by Darwin. But Thatcher is frustrated by his inability to use his understanding in his classroom. The town was built to be utopian but based on strict biblical interpretation. Darwin's theory of evolution offends those in charge. While the poorly-built house is falling apart around them, Thatcher feels the pressure of trying to keep the home together, satisfy his wife's yearning for a better life, and figure out how to work around the principal's strict teaching requirements. But, then a murder forces him to put his beliefs on display and risks his job prospects.
I'm not sure I did an adequate job of describing the parallel plots in Unsheltered but you can look up the publisher's description somewhere else if you desire to learn more about the book. The bottom line is that both stories take place within the same house, a structure so poorly built that even the first family that lived in it had to deal with the fact that it was basically crashing down around them and had to constantly be patched up. Both the Greenwoods and Willa's family are in dire straits financially and have challenges within the family -- clashing personalities, slightly overwhelming responsibilities. The contemporary story is told from Willa's perspective and the historical from Thatcher's, both being the people who have the most responsibility to balance.
Unsheltered is atypical for this type of story. Most of those that I've read contain more of a connecting thread that a single, physical object (the house) and they tend to be a bit lighter, stylistically. Kingsolver's books have a laudable depth. But, in her search for a meaningful historical connection to find money for home repairs, Willa glimpses the unique friendship and the surprising historical tale that take place in the second storyline, so there is some crossover. It's just a little more tentative than most I've read. While I was intrigued by the science end of the story, I think I spent more time wondering how on earth both families were going to deal with the disastrous house and the family issues. The science conversations felt like a bit of a reprieve from the rest.
Through the tale of their collapsing house, Kingsolver touches on all sorts of topics like American healthcare, scientific methodology, the balance of work and home life in parenting, climate change, politics. She never uses the name of our current president but the contemporary story takes place during the election season and it's clear who she's referring to when she speaks of the Bullhorn. Willa's irascible father-in-law, Nick, has similar traits to the candidate.
Recommended - Both engrossing and educational (much of the historical portions are based on real-life characters and events), I really enjoyed Unsheltered. My only complaint would have to be the occasional philosophical arguments between Tig (whose name I correctly guessed is short for Antigone) and Willa. I found them a bit of a yawn. Some may find the book a bit on the preachy side but Kingsolver's books usually bring up environmental issues so that's nothing new. If you're offended by people nattering on about saving the planet, you might find it frustrating. I'm a closet environmentalist so I did not. The writing style is lovely and sharp. I'm always impressed by Kingsolver's writing.
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