Barbara Kingsolver once said that when she writes a novel, she starts with the plot. However, “Unsheltered” is instead a novel that’s constructed around a strong metaphor — two families, separated by 150 years, living in the same location in houses where mistakes in construction mean that, at some point, repair is impossible. The houses must be torn down and something else put in their place.
Willa and her husband Iano have inherited a house in Vineland, New Jersey, a community that was founded as a kind of utopia by strong, patriarchal Charles Landis, who ruled over the town like a king. Thatcher Greenwood and his wife Rose are part of a household at the same address in the late 1860s, when Landis reigned. Thatcher’s house was built on the cheap and is gradually falling down; Willa’s house was built on the ruins of that house, but half of it lacks a foundation and is gradually pulling away from the other half of the house.
Class enters into the mix — Thatcher, a workman, managed to go to school and become a teacher. His wife, from the Vineland upper class, was temporarily down on her luck when they met, but Thatcher’s income provides enough for them to move back to her childhood home. Iano is a downwardly mobile professor whose tenured position ended when his college went bankrupt. He became a poorly paid adjunct professor and the house they inherited represented free rent. In neither case is the rent really free; instead, the houses both come with social expectations and obligations — and turn out to be white elephants.
In case you’re still putting together what the metaphor represents, it may help to know that Willa’s crisis comes during the election of 2016 with Trump’s speeches constantly in the background. Thatcher’s crisis is in the aftermath of the Civil War, when the survivors are still struggling over the historical meaning of that devastating conflict. Not that this is a straightforward political allegory — rather, it’s a meditation on the tension between religion and science, between material greed and making do, and, ultimately between climate change and living a sustainable life on the planet. Kingsolver is taking on some big topics.
In the midst of the metaphor of the houses, though, Kingsolver’s characters take on a life of their own. Thatcher forms an intimate friendship with neighbor Mary Treat (a real historical personage) around a belief in science and the scientific method. Willa and her unconventional daughter Tig (short for Antigone, another metaphoric reference) take on raising Willa’s grandson while the widowed father, her son Zeke, tries to make it on Wall Street. Tig, a radical who recently returned from living in Cuba, is amazingly patient as she cares for her dying grandfather, a rabid Trump supporter. The complexity of relationships makes for a rich tangle of motivation as both families try to cope with the underlying problem — what to do when your house is falling down.
Kingsolver is a skillful writer. Her story of two families coping with the questions of how to rehabilitate their doomed houses definitely will draw the reader in. The story of the utopian community of Vineland, where the feted prosperity and education of all the residents were just so much hype (just like the former greatness of Donald Trump’s America), is intriguing, and the scientific ferment in the 1860s around the theory of evolution connects with the ginned-up debate over climate change today. But the parallels, when they rise to the surface, seem more forced than intrinsic to the story. Complicated as they are, Kingsolver’s plot and characters don’t do more than skim the surface of the deeper themes. The ambitious and thought-provoking metaphor that provides the structural underpinning for the plot ultimately becomes an inadequate “shelter” (if you will) for the story.
The message of the novel is that “shelter” is useful only to the extent that it is real and that often our intellectual shelters prevent us from seeing reality. That was (and is) true of the anti-evolutionists in the story, who shelter themselves from the insight that humans are not privileged by God over other species; it is also true of modern consumerism, which teaches that each generation’s life will be materially better than the previous one, and of capitalism, whose illusory confidence in unending growth is destroying the planet.
There’s an alternative to living a destructive illusion. As Mary Treat puts it, “Without shelter, we stand in daylight.” If our social structures and illusions shelter us from the reality of our destructiveness, then we’re better off without them. The question, of course, is how to live without illusion. Tig, a scrounger and community organizer, is the closest Kingsolver offers as a solution. But the point is made uncertainly and tentatively; Willa realizes she needs to leave the illusory shelter of the collapsing house, but the apartment she finds is also only temporary. Kingsolver is probably trying to say that survival is ultimately a matter of adaptability and willingness to face reality as it happens — but in both parts of the plot, survival comes far too easily.
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