Monday, November 19, 2018

Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver

I think Barbara Kingsolver is one of the most important and socially significant authors of the last fifty years. Her latest novel Unsheltered is not a happy read, but it important and very relevant to our times. Kingsolver is a fine scientist as she shows in her essays, High Tide in Tucson as well as in her many novels. Indeed, the science asides in this latest novel are fascinating even when not essential to the plot.

The novel is really two stories, one occurring at the end of the 19th century, and the other in the present. Iano and Willa have been chasing tenure and job security for almost all of their married lives, and it has so far eluded them.  Their two children, Zeke and Antigony (Tig or Tiger for short) have been forced to live the same itinerant lifestyle as their parents. Zeke, newly out of grad school with massive student debts, has just lost his young wife to cancer, and is suddenly faced not just with that loss, but also with an infant son. Willa and Iano take on the care of the infant and Zeke moves back home. Tig has not quite finished a science degree when she drops out of college and goes to Cuba with her boyfriend. But she, too, without much explanation to her parents shows up on their doorstep, ready to resume her sometimes bitter sibling rivalry with  Zeke. The house they are living in is quickly falling apart and they are told the best route is simply to tear the old structure down and build over the ruins. 

The other story is that of Thatcher Greenwood, his young materialistic wife Rose, Rose’s younger sister Polly and the mother of the two young women, all of whom live in the same house. They, too, are living in a house that is falling apart, and have only Thatcher’s meager income as a high school science teacher to try to shore things up. Both families are very nearly unsheltered with insufficient income to remodel or rebuild. 

Mary Treat is an actual historical figure—an under-recognized biologist and a correspondent of both Charles Darwin and Asa Gray. She is a neighbor of the Greenwoods, and her story is another important strand in the novel. Indeed, I would say that the relationship between Thatcher and Mary is the most intriguing in the book. The New Jersey town that all the characters live in was meant to be a modern utopia, and when established in the 19th century, it was ruled by a more or less benevolent tyrant by the name of Landis who lures people to the village with promises of free land, and then essentially indentures them as their farms and businesses fail and they must rely on Landis and the company store. The  school where  Thatcher teaches is  ruled by  Landis’ handpicked principal who is self-righteous,  anti-curiosity and anti-science; although the principal has not read Darwin and would not consider doing so, he knows that Darwin must be wrong, since his writings conflict with scripture. 

Although the Thatcher Greenwood story predates the famous Scopes trial by a decade or so, there is a wonderful scene in the book in which Thatcher takes on the principal and the pseudo-science he represents. Thatcher, who is genuinely a champion of reason and empirical evidence, is nevertheless socially inept and shy of confrontation. Mary Treat and his sister-in-law, Polly, take it on themselves to school Thatcher on the methods he must use in the debate. Kingsolver shows off her own understanding of the history of science as she describes this debate. Mary is certainly the character most like Kingsolver in the book.

A reader friend of mine whose opinion I greatly respect, has complained to me that the characters in the novel are not filled out well and not particularly convincing. I understand his  position, but I found most of the characters both well drawn and convincing. In fact, one of the reasons I have been vigorously recommending this novel to women friends is that I find the descriptions of the conflicts between Willa and Tig so convincing. Tig accuses Willa of sacrificing her children’s welfare to the continued and unsuccessful chasing of tenure and job-security, moving them from town to town, each time uprooting them and thus interrupting their own growth and social happiness. 
I saw you and Dad doing that, hitching your wagon to the tenure star, and it didn’t look that great to me. You made such a big deal about security that sacrificed giving us any long-term, community.
The accusations Tig throws at Willa, and her uncompromising attacks on her parenting are so like the mother-daughter relationships of two of my closest women friends. I felt the hurt and heartsoreness of Willa so totally.

There are many other features of this book that I haven’t the time to mention. Tig paints for the reader a fascinating picture of Cuba and of attempts there to reuse and recycle. I also very much enjoyed Kingsolver’s obvious jibes at Trump, although she doesn’t call him out by name, referring to him only as The Blowhard or The Mouth, but there is no doubt to whom she is referring. “I suppose it is in our nature, she said finally. “When men fear the loss of what they know, they will follow any tyrant who promises to restore the old order.”

While I personally see the importance of this book as primarily social commentary and championing scientific objectivity, I think it is quite worthwhile simply as an engaging story. I count it as one of the best books of 2018.

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