By Barbara Kingsolver
Harper. 480 pp. $29.99
Reviewed by Ron Charles
Here comes the first major novel to tackle the Trump era straight on and place it in the larger chronicle of existential threats. Donald Trump's name doesn't appear in Barbara Kingsolver's Unsheltered, but the president prowls all through these pages. Kingsolver has constructed this book as two interlaced stories separated by more than a century. Her alternating structure suggests Trump is not unique but merely the latest outbreak of a virus that periodically infects America.
The contemporary story in Unsheltered offers a collage of Democratic talking points acted out in the lives of a middle-class family slipping down the ladder of success. As the novel opens, this extended family of Willa Knox has just moved to Vineland, into a collapsing house that serves as their precarious shelter and a very sturdy metaphor. Willa and her husband, a college professor, are now close enough to retirement to realize no retirement awaits them. The absurd mess of American health insurance confounds every effort to get Willa's father-in-law the care he needs. Her brilliant son is hobbled by more than $100,000 in student loans. And, meanwhile, her daughter has become a Dumpster-diving Cassandra, convinced that modern capitalism is warming the planet toward incineration.
Although Willa and her family are certainly sympathetic characters, they are too claustrophobically confined to axioms of liberal orthodoxy. I'm in perfect agreement with every position Kingsolver advocates, but when does one dare object to the heavy hand of editorial determinism? Only late in the novel do some of these characters seem to break free from their thematic function and begin to consider in more conflicted and nuanced ways a life outside the capitalist furnace of consumption.
Ironically, the alternate chapters of Unsheltered, set in the 1870s, are fresher and more rewarding. In hopes of earning a historical preservation grant for her crumbling house, Willa begins to research its earliest inhabitants. At this point, Kingsolver takes us back to the origins of Vineland, an actual utopian community founded by Charles Landis, a Trumpian real estate developer who really did shoot someone and get away with it. Among the citizens of Vineland was Mary Treat, a self-taught naturalist who corresponded with Charles Darwin and supported herself as a science writer. Kingsolver brings Treat to life in all her impressive brilliance and delightful eccentricity. Unsheltered re-creates this post-Civil War period with wonderful fidelity, especially its clashing convictions about God, science, and humanity.
These chapters focus on Thatcher Greenwood, a fictional character who has moved to Vineland to teach science at the free secondary school. He quickly befriends his impressive neighbor, Mary, and feels inspired by her intellectual curiosity and her disregard for the regard of society. But like Willa far in the future, he's saddled with the demands of a multigenerational family, a precarious income, and a collapsing house. And, again like Willa, he's trying to survive in a violently fracturing culture.
All those national tensions come into play when Thatcher finds himself accused of corrupting students with Darwin's theory of evolution. Among the novel's wittiest sections is a public debate with the pompous headmaster — a kind of early version of the Scopes Trial. Thatcher, the idealistic teacher and faithful husband, is torn between his responsibilities to his family and his commitment to the principles of scientific inquiry. Will he lose his wife's devotion or Mary's respect?
Traveling side by side, 140 years apart, these alternating stories about Willa and Thatcher maintain their distinctive tones but echo one another in curious, provocative ways. Kingsolver suggests it's never been easy to find oneself unsheltered, cast out from the comforts of old beliefs about how the world works. If there's any spark of optimism, it's implied by the novel's parallel structure: We've adapted before. With a little creative thinking and courage, we might do so again.