In Unsheltered, Barbara Kingsolver mixes two story lines chapter by chapter. The first focuses on Willa Knox and her present-day family. The second focuses on Thatcher Greenwood, who lived in the same neighborhood as Willa in the 1870s. Both are faced with deteriorating homes and changing families.
Willa is unexpectedly caring for her infant grandson, while also adjusting to the move to New Jersey. She and her husband Iano have been married for decades, with two grown children. Or, as my former father-in-law used to say, “rubber-band children.” Meaning they’d been out on their own and had snapped back to their parents’ home. As many empty nesters do, they’re also caring for Iano’s father Nick. Plus, the house they inherited is falling down around them.
Thatcher’s life seems less complicated. Until it’s not. He’s a newlywed, living in extended family circumstances. Their home is his in-laws’ former home, which had recently been rented to a bachelor. Circumstances have changed, because Thatcher starts a teaching position in Vineland. So he, his wife, his mother-in-law, and teenage sister-in-law return home. But Vineland isn’t Thatcher’s hometown and he sticks out like a sore thumb. If it wasn’t for his neighbor, real-life science writer Mary Treat, he’d be positively unmoored.
Vineland is a character itself, especially in the 1870s story arc. A real-life, Reconstruction-era town, it was founded with utopian goals. But there’s a dark, controlling side to those goals. And Boston-born Thatcher struggles to make sense of the town’s structure.
My IRL book group picked this for our January book. A couple folks have struggled with it. Not me. I sailed right through, feeling especially close to Willa and her brood. I particularly liked her daughter Antigone, called Tig. She’s an insightful representation of millennial thinking. As a mom with kids the same age, including one who just moved out—again—I can relate.
Thatcher’s story is less about personalities and more about ideas, primarily the struggle for scientific validation of fairly new concepts. He’s a science teacher with strong feelings about evolution, given the recent writings of Charles Darwin. But his boss is firmly in the creationist camp. These are topics that interest me, and Kingsolver puts them forth in a compelling way despite the fictional setting.
I joined the Barbara Kingsolver fan club much later than many readers, starting with her book Flight Behavior. So, as I read Unsheltered this month, I wasn’t comparing it to many of her previous books. (Although I’m promising myself to read a few more from her backlist this year.) I was simply appreciating it for what it is—masterful historical and contemporary story-telling combined with social commentary.