“Unsheltered” is an ambitious addition to Kingsolver’s work and a pointed call for the liberal values she holds dear. It will appeal to her loyal followers but probably not to those she hopes to convert.
Progressive politics have always fueled Barbara Kingsolver’s fiction, from her first novel, “The Bean Trees,” to her latest, “Unsheltered.” She always risks crossing the line from creative storytelling to unabashed advocacy — a risk that has only increased with the shrill tone that now dominates political discourse.
Structurally, “Unsheltered” is built on one substandard house and two sets of occupants, a contemporary family and the one who resided there in the 1870s. Thematically, it’s about the uneasy state of America’s middle class, and how changing times and ideas inevitably invite resistance.
The story begins with the fictional Willa Knox, the book’s anxiety-ridden, Xanax-popping protagonist, who inherited the ramshackle New Jersey Victorian where she and her family now live. The place was once part of a planned community called Vineland, established by an unscrupulous real-estate developer who expected the residents to play by his rules. (No names, please, but he bears an unflattering resemblance to a certain present-day leader, referred to as “the Bullhorn.”)
Willa’s house is the only home she and her husband, Iano Tavoularis, can afford, even though the roof is falling in around them, its condition surely a metaphor for the current state of the union. She’s a freelance writer earning crumbs. The college where Iano was a tenured professor has closed and he has a low-paying, yearlong post nearby. As the story evolves, the family retreats to a mattress in the living room because the bedroom ceilings have collapsed.
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With the hope of finding grant money for needed repairs, Willa goes to the local history museum, where she learns the story of the young science teacher who lived in her house some 150 years before. This fictional character, bearing the starched name Thatcher Greenwood, becomes friends with his next-door neighbor, a real-life naturalist named Mary Treat. She encourages Thatcher to support the theory of evolution, even when it challenges Vineland’s established institutions — a move that makes this secondary story relevant to Kingsolver’s purpose.
“Everybody your age is, like, crouching inside this box made out of what they already believe,” Tig, Willa’s daughter, tells her, lauding the government institutions in Cuba — Cuba? — with smug knowingness. Like other characters in this story, Tig verges on caricature. When informed that her parents’ home is scheduled for demolition, she counters with the obvious non sequitur that the permafrost is melting.
Willa herself is more developed, but not happily. Unlike the main characters in Kingsolver’s early books, she’s older and more disappointed with life. She cares for her husband’s sick father, Nick, while arguing with his bigoted views. She takes the handoff of her grandson, Dusty, from her fast-track son, a graduate of all the right schools who has all the wrong values.
And then there’s her husband.
“You’ve been sad for a hundred years,” he tells Willa, seemingly unaware that he handed her the worry bowl long ago. This has allowed him to remain the feckless optimist.
“Unsheltered” is an ambitious addition to Kingsolver’s work and a pointed call for the liberal values she holds dear. More polemic than poetry, it will appeal to her loyal followers but probably not to those she hopes to convert.
“Unsheltered” by Barbara Kingsolver, HarperCollins Publishers, 480 pp., $29.99