Barbara Kingsolver‘s latest novel, Unsheltered, is set in Vineland, New Jersey, across two centuries. In 2016 Willa Knox, reeling from her mother’s death and the financial upheaval that comes with redundancy, moves with her family to an old inherited home in Vineland. In 1871, Thatcher Greenwood moves to Vineland with his new wife and her family to take up a position as a science teacher in the local high school. These parallel lives release and unravel within the same community: both having moved for a new chance, both wanting the best for their families, both knowing that there is something more.
In 1861 Charles Landis purchased 30,000 acres of land in New Jersey to establish a dry utopian community based on his ideals of agriculture and progressive thinking. Land was cheap, but the regulations for living we strict: from the kind of people who could move there, to the types and location of trees planted in the street, to the ban on alcohol, to what ideas were allowed to be taught to the children or discussed in the town. Landis cast himself as a god with an iron grip. It is within this world that Thatcher finds himself, and it is after this experiment that Willa lives.
Of course, the reality of utopias are never what they promise, and the realisation of this disintegrates around Willa and Thatcher in their respective lives. Thatcher is a man of science, excited by the new theory published by Charles Darwin, trying his hardest to make money to take care of his new family in their crumbling home. Willa sees her grown children struggling, her academic husband having to start again, medical costs for her aged father-in-law build up, their house falling apart around them, and grapples with why life isn’t better for this generation.
145 years between our two lead characters and both are in the same town, living in a home that is falling down around them. When we come into the light, when we are unsheltered, things can crystallise, become clearer, become stronger. Involuntarily that is what is happening to both Willa and Thatcher. The most basic requirement of shelter, a roof over your head, is systematically being undermined which transforms their journeys, altering their own sense of identity while hardening around what is important.
These two stories, two sets of lives have notable commonalities with their homes falling apart in a dystopian community, but they are such individual and unique stories. Kingsolver beautifully renders each world and its concerns, the parallels between them for the reader to draw only if they wish. I adored the multiple layers worked in this tale – the struggle with shelter, lessons in a changing world, human instinct and family. It was understated, and masterful. There are some traditional Kingsolver preoccupations present as well – our understanding of and respect for the natural world, for one – but they are rendered in a new way here.
This book speaks to our times with subtlety and wisdom. There is no finger-wagging but a slow revelation that all we are seeing now we have seen before. That these foibles of humanity have been around for centuries. That our relationship with the natural world is limited and deserves more respect. That appeals to emotion are so much more easily accepted than difficult lessons in rationality or fact. Listing this all like this is both a little depressing and perhaps overstates the moral lesson of this book. It is just what I have taken from it – I found the weaving of these experiences of humanity across the centuries to be clever and beautiful.
For some reason, I was not looking forward to this book: I love Kingsolver, her themes, her beautiful writing, but I put off picking it up. But once I dd I could not put it down. I found the way she told two stories within an existing, shared whole to be so skillful, so resonant, that it is still with me now. By spanning time and place Unsheltered gives us a clearer look at both the resilience and persistent rapacity of the human condition.