Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver

Source of book: Audiobook from the library


I enjoyed The Poisonwood Bible last year, and put a few other Kingsolver books on my list. Unsheltered was one of our book club books a couple years ago, but it was for a month I was unable to attend, so I didn’t read it then. Since my wife read it and recommended it, I decided to go with it for my commuting audiobook. 

Unsheltered is really two stories in one. There is the modern-day story of Willa Knox and her family. And then, there is historical fiction about naturalist Mary Treat and the crazy goings on in Vineland, New Jersey, in 1875. 


Kingsolver sets both stories in the same place - a particular Vineland lot next door to Mary Treat’s house. The two stories are told in alternating chapters, with the final word or words of each chapter forming the chapter title for the next chapter. 


First, about the modern story. Willa has recently lost her job as a journalist when the magazine she works for folds; her husband, Iano, a college professor, has had a similar shift - the college he finally got tenure at went bankrupt, and he is back to working as an adjunct for starvation wages, while Willa attempts freelance work. 


They inherit a decrepit old house in Vineland from Willa’s aunt, and move in, only to find out it is literally falling down around their ears. In order to try to repair it, Willa contacts the local historical society to determine if there is any historical significance that will allow her to tap into preservation funds. As a result, she discovers the stories of Mary Treat, Charles Landis (the founder of Vineland as a sort of utopia), Uri Carruth (the journalist Landis eventually murders), and the fictional Thatcher Greenwood (a teacher who runs afoul of Landis for teaching Darwin’s theories.) 


Willa’s family situation gets more complex really fast as the story unfolds. Iano’s bigoted father Nick lives with them, having been too much for any of his other children. He is in the process of dying - very loudly and unpleasantly. Her adult daughter, Antigone (“Tig”) returns from Cuba with a broken heart and dreadlocks. But at least Tig has a job at a local restaurant, and, as it turns out, a lot of mad skills at everything from cooking to making do with next to nothing. Then, her son Zeke’s partner Helene kills herself soon after having their child, and Willa and Tig are essentially left to care for an infant while Zeke tries to find a way to support himself in a hostile job environment. 


Then, there is the historical story. Some parts of it - the most shocking parts - are actual history. Charles Landis did found Vineland as a utopia, and actively recruited immigrants from eastern Europe to come work the vineyards and factories. Vineland was (ironically) an officially alcohol-free town (but we all know…), and its vineyards were used to produce Welch’s Grape Juice. Landis was also accused of being an exploiter of labor, and a retrograde when it came to science. 


But the big event was his murder of Carruth, after Carruth ran a piece questioning Landis’ wife’s sanity. Landis was tried for the murder, but acquitted on grounds of temporary insanity - this was a case that was mentioned in Law School, although it did not result in an appellate opinion. It made headlines around the world. 


Likewise, Mary Treat was a real person, and her correspondence with Charles Darwin and other famous scientists of her day from around the world has become better known recently. 


Thatcher Greenwood and his family are fictional, but his public debates about Darwinism are drawn from actual events that took place throughout the United States at the time. Before movies and television, lectures and debates were often the most popular public entertainment. 


The historical story corresponds to the modern one in a number of ways - the questions surrounding immigration, education, and science, as well as the way that a powerful personality (Landis and Trump) can win loyalty by promising shelter from new ideas and cultural change. Like 19th Century America, our own time is about to be turned on its head, no matter what the reactionaries demand - reality has a way of doing that. 


The title serves both as a theme - both Thatcher and Willa struggle to keep a roof over their heads - and as a metaphor. In a time when existing structures are crumbling, we find ourselves “unsheltered” by our existing paradigms, and need to embrace the open sky. For those of the Gilded Age, the agrarian existence was giving way to factory exploitation, which would in turn require a significant restructuring of society. Existing religious frameworks would no longer suffice to explain reality and origins. For our own time, climate change and growing inequality along with income insecurity will require different solutions - something that those like Nick are unable or unwilling to see. 


The book has been criticized for a few perceived flaws. The first is that it assumes a liberal value system - I think this critique is correct as far as it goes, but I think it also misses the reality that the characters that Kingsolver chooses would in fact think and talk the way they do. If I think about my educated friends who work in academia or journalism, Willa and Iano are pretty typical folk. One could complain about some degree of lecturing, I imagine, but it isn’t a stretch that a family with these people would have these exact same arguments, and the same responses to unwelcome changes in their world and their lives. 


The other criticism I think is naive. Specifically, some critics have bristled at the supposedly one-dimensional portrayal of Nick and the bigoted townsfolk of Thatcher’s time. He is, to be sure, a thoroughly horrible person by the time we meet him, with not a heck of a lot to redeem him. (Although the other characters try to be gracious about him.) 


If I had read this book 10 years ago, I probably would have had the same critique. But the book was written in 2018, during the shock of the election of Trump and the reemergence of Fascism in the US. Back then, I thought I knew my conservative family and friends. And they would never say, as Nick does, “It’s all the fault of those wetbacks.” 


But….fast forward to 2018…


My own father, who raised me to be a compassionate, empathetic person, to respect and embrace immigrants as the hardest working people we knew. After all that, when the Trump Era came around, I was told straight up, without any embarrassment, “I don’t like Trump’s style, but at least he is finally doing something about the Hispanic problem.” 




Or a leader at our former church saying without any hesitation that we should treat undocumented immigrants as “fugitives from justice” and brutally punish those who shelter them.


Yeah, so maybe saying “wetback” is just a tiny bit far for my parents’ generation? Or maybe not. You can mean the slur without saying it, and good god have I heard the stereotypes that haven’t changed in 150 years. But for someone like Nick, in his 70s or 80s? Totally realistic. And a person consumed with toxic talk radio to the point of making it his identity? I know people like that, and have watched them descend further and further into conspiratorial thinking. 


I think there are a lot of us who still are experiencing trauma at what we have seen and heard in the Trump Era - how much the open hate drives so many we know and love. How deeply the fear of people different from them consumes them. How much the fear of change leads them to advocate for preventing their own grandchildren from having a voice in the future of our country. And, of course, how much they rail against “socialism” while they are kept alive by socialized medicine for senior citizens. 


What is clear is that, no matter what the future holds, unbridled consumption and the expectation of endless exponential growth of profit is not in any way sustainable. Hence, it is Mary Treat and Tig who have it right: it ultimately doesn’t matter what you believe, because reality doesn’t give a fuck about your ideology. Evolution happened and is happening, whether you believe it or not. Climate change is happening (and we are causing it) whether you believe it or not. We can either embrace reality and act accordingly, or we can stuff bricks from our crumbling shelters in our pockets (as Tig describes it) and try to keep our worldviews intact. 


In other words, while we can try to be like Nick - letting our fears of change and irrelevance and our own mortality lead us in the direction of becoming venomous and hateful and vicious - reality doesn’t care, and our descendants are more likely to be like Tig, compassionate, but ultimately relieved that we are going to be dead soon and they can get on with the task of living in the present and preparing for a different future. 


Kingsolver is a skilled writer, and makes both stories compelling. In this case, the audiobook was also narrated by her, and she does a great job - not all authors are good at reading, but she does a fine job of keeping the voices separate and making her vision come alive. 


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