Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver

38236861Fiction – print. Harper, 2018. 464 pgs. Purchased.

Kingsolver’s latest novel teeters together two stories set roughly 150 years apart through a shared locality, the planned community of Vineland, New Jersey. The present-day story is set late 2015 and early 2016 – the characters react to the rhetoric of Donald Trump’s campaign, although never refer to him by name – and follows the matriarch of Vineland’s newest residents, Willa.

Willa’s husband recently lost his tenured professorship after the small, insolvent college in Virginia shuttered its doors. Since the land upon which the family’s hot sat was owned by the college, the couple were forced to relocate to an inherited yet dilapidated house in Vineland. Willa is attempting to work as a freelance journalist – she lost her own job after the magazine she worked for folded – but her efforts are stymied by the presence of a diabetic father-in-law in need of constant care and a twenty-six-year-old daughter who still lives at home.

The only successful aspect of Willa’s life is her son, Zeke, who is working at a hedge fund in Boston and graduated from two Ivy League colleges. But, as Willa has come to learn through the last few years, success can be both fleeting and a construct of smoke and mirrors.

Zeke is buried in debt, working in an unpaid internship in order to continue deferring his student loans, and just became a single father to a newborn after his girlfriend takes her own life. Hoping to provide him the space to grieve, Willa agrees to take the baby back to Vineland while Zeke works towards providing a stable home for his son. Even though the home Willa and her husband own is the opposite of stable – the walls are crumbling, the heat doesn’t work, and a series of storms leave the upstairs inhabitable.

The historical story is set in the late 1880s and follows the patriarch of Vineland’s newest residents, Thatcher Greenwood. Much like Willa, Thatcher has unwillingly moved to the area. His long-deceased father-in-law bought a home in Vineland, and his mother-in-law and wife have longed to return to the area since they forced to leave for economic reasons following his death.

To them, Vineland is everything its founder promised it would be – a utopian society where the educated and the worker would live side-by-side, enjoying stimulating lectures on God and raising riches out of former swamp land. But Thatcher quickly becomes disenchanted with the area, especially after the local principal insists the new theories of Charles Darwin are blasphemy and forbids Thatcher from teaching them.

Thatcher’s only comfort are afternoons he passes in the company of his neighbor, Mary Treat, a self-taught scientist and friend of Darwin. Their friendship becomes a life raft for Thatcher, but also for Willa in 2016 as she searches the town’s archives in the hopes of justifying why her home should receive money earmarked for historic preservation.

The connection with the past Willa is looking for must be more than tenuous, a situation that is mirror in the rest of her story. She claims not to understand her daughter, who lives on the periphery of society by choice, but the year covered in this novel teaches her to appreciate the strong connections Tig has fostered around her. She tries to provide her son with space, but her actions end up encouraging him to have a weak connection with his son. She cannot stand to have more than fleeting interactions with her racist father-in-law, yet she comes to realize how the unmooring of their lives and their expectations has led him to turn away from the rest of the world.

Willa’s story is infused with grief – physically in the loss of family members, emotionally in the loss of her expectations for their lives. In her late fifties, Willa should be thinking about retirement, moving her father-in-law into an assisted living facility, and visiting her grandchild rather than raising him. She followed the rules and things should have worked out for her. But they didn’t.

And Willa feels unsure of who to blame for her financial failings or the way things have worked out for her family. She loathes Trump’s rhetoric, but she finds her daughter’s championing of Cuba to be incomprehensible. Caught in between the two extremes, Willa tries her best to focus on moving her family forward and out of poverty as best she can.

It is clear from the writing and the interjection of Trump’s rhetoric that Kingsolver felt like she had to respond to Trump’s election in some way. Unlike other writers, though, Kingsolver focuses on the subgroup of the American population who are economically struggling but did not vote for Trump.

This population has barely received any media attention, which is a shame because I know a number of people who feel this way. They followed the rules, but they’re crushed by debt, underemployed, and clamoring for a complete upending of the American capitalist system. Kingsolver’s presentation of this group was emotional, reflective, and intriguing to read about.

I’m still not sure how I feel about the historical fiction portion of the story. It’s inclusion provided a respite from the emotionally draining present-day story, and it also showed how Americans have long come under the sway of demagogues who promise utopian societies. The founder of Vineland is a stand-in for Trump; he literally shoots a man in broad daylight on the main drag, and the residents of the community barely shrug their shoulders.

But it was also pretty ho-hum as a standalone story. Until the shooting in the street, I wondered if Kingsolver wanted to write a story about Mary Treat but couldn’t find enough material to justify a full-length novel or couldn’t get her publisher interested in the topic without the Trump angle.

I raced through chapters focused on the present-day story; I plodded through the chapters focused on the historical fiction story. But I’d still recommend this one; it’s a strong offering from Kingsolver that fills a gap in the world of Trump-explainer fiction and nonfiction.

4 comments

  1. Jeane

    I also had more trouble connecting to the past-time storyline than the present one, but for different reasons. I feel it was a worthwhile read, but not quite as enjoyable as other of her novels.

    Like

  2. Ti

    Nice job. I was not a fan of this one. I just never got into it. The past or the present story line. It was a statement but the statement wasn’t that clear to me either. It seemed scattered in the telling.

    Like

    • That’s how many of the women in my book club felt. Most missed the parallel between Trump and the bombastic leader in the past storyline, which was key for me in understanding her statement.

      Like

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