In the tumultuous political climate of 2016, Barbara Kingsolver — known for her best-selling novel “The Poisonwood Bible” — has written a novel that both captures the divisiveness of today’s American society and compares it to the heated debates about evolution and creationism in the 1870s. Although sometimes heavy-handed while getting her point across, Kingsolver intricately weaves the modern storyline with the past to show that no matter how scary the present may seem, American society has been this divided before.
“Unsheltered” tells the two separate stories of families that live in the same house at different times. The 1870s timeline focuses on Thatcher Greenwood, a newlywed and new resident in the idealistic community of Vineland. Thatcher is enthralled by his next door neighbor Mary Treat — a real historical figure who was a scientist and correspondent to famous scientists like Charles Darwin and Asa Gray — and enraged by the supposed idealist societies’ resistance to teaching the theory of evolution. The modern timeline follows a family that has inherited a house on the brink of falling apart. While Willa and Iano believed that one day they would be able to live in comfort, they are instead taking care of their grandchild after the death of his mother and Iano’s ailing father, requiring help from both their children just to stay afloat. Although a close-knit family, there is a great deal of tension between them: Iano’s father, Nick, is a conservative with no regards for keeping his language politically correct, while Iano’s daughter, Tig is as liberal as they come with a disgust for the American Dream of acquiring wealth, and Zeke is a Harvard Business School graduate working for start-ups and finance companies.
A seasoned author, Kingsolver has an acute understanding of what it takes to write a great novel. The language is clear and precise. The dialogue is well-written and each character seems to have a style of speaking that matches their personalities perfectly. For instance, the millenial daughter Tig is well-spoken and full of radical ideas, but still manages to throw in a condescending “obvi” at the end of a few obvious points. Tig’s mother Willa has all the qualities of both a mother and ex-journalist, correcting everyone from her children to strangers on their grammar. Iano, Willa’s husband and a first-generation Greek immigrant, peppers his sentences with Greek metaphors and idioms.
Kingsolver has acutely drawn a parallel between two distinct, yet somehow similar, time periods. The debates between Christians who believed Darwin’s theory to be a sin against God and scientists who understood the value of the theory of evolution holds a tension similar to the tension today between Trump supporters and dissenters. Although never named, Trump’s run for presidency is clearly on the minds of both Kingsolver and her characters. Willa complains that her father-in-law “loves this billionaire running for president who’s never lifted a finger doing anything.” Just as Willa fights her father-in-law for what she believes to be completely outdated beliefs, Thatcher Greenwood fights the school principal and town leader to teach evolution in his classroom.
But sometimes the message gets a bit too didactic. Several times the family has political debates, or discusses the role of people like Zeke who work on Wall Street and seem to be in the business of making the rich richer. Tig lovingly takes care of Nick yet repeatedly condemns his conservative views, telling her mother, “There’s a lot of white folks out there hanging on to their God-given right to look down on some other class of people.” Although white herself, it becomes clear that Tig has a morbid long term hope for conservative, white Americans: Once all the older conservatives like her grandfather die, people like her can finally have the power to redirect the world to something better. Aside from this thought, many liberals reading this novel will agree with the arguments against the creationists in the early timeline and the conservatives in the present, but it’s unclear how this is beneficial. Anyone who disagrees with Kingsolver’s views will surely have abandoned the novel long ago after seeing the conservative character painted as a senile and angry old man, leaving only those who already agree with Kingsolver’s message.
A rumination on the post-2016 political climate and an excellent example of historical fiction, “Unsheltered” falters only in moments where its message is perhaps too clear. However, creationists and conservatives should beware, for Kingsolver does not look kindly upon you.
—Staff writer Caroline E. Tew can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @caroline_tew.
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