Genre: Family Saga/Historical Fiction
Pub. Date: October 16, 2018
Barbara Kingsolver is a powerhouse of a writer and one of my preferred authors. “Poisonwood Bible” remains a favorite book of mine. In her latest novel, she sticks with her familiar themes—environment, religion, and social issues. The setting goes back and forth between America’s current troubles to America’s troubled past. In the present, we meet a fictional college-educated, middle-class family who live in the real-life city of Vineland, NJ. To their shock, a few career setbacks and an ailing parent’s medical bills have caused a downgrade in their economic status. Kingsolver is at her best when asking “how could this have happened to us?…we did everything right.” She makes it easy to realize that your life too could turn on a dime. To add to the family’s woes, their centuries-old house is literally crumbling around them. Willa, the family matriarch, has learned that their house may have once been the home to real-life Mary Treat. Treat was a self-taught naturalist and correspondent with Charles Darwin. Willa begins to write a historical preservation grant in hopes that the grant will pay for the house renovations.
In the past, Kingsolver takes us back to when Mary Treat was a working naturalist, which was immediately post civil war. Her reasons for this time period are clear and very clever. The troubles for the family in current times begin when Trump announced he was running for president. Donald Trump’s name never appears in the novel but it is clear that he is “the Bullhorn…who promises to restore the old order…the billionaire running for president who’s never lifted a finger in work…the candidate who brags that he could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and people would still vote for him.” The past is my favorite part of the book since it is such a classroom experience without the homework assignments. I was fascinated to learn that back then, Vineland was created to be a utopian community. It was founded by nonfictional Charles Landis. He was a Trumpian-like real estate developer who really did shoot someone in the middle of the street and get away with it. Landis had a strong dislike for Darwin since the opinion of the times was that Darwin was threatening religious beliefs. He did not want Darwin’s theories, or any already proven scientific facts to be taught in Vineland’s schools. Sounds familiar right? Trump’s (so-called) Christian anti-science moves are spelled out loud and clear. In an interview with Kirkus Reviews, Kingsolver states, “I chose the 1870s as my alternate world because I knew it was a really difficult, polarized moment in our history…..Racial divisions, urban/rural divisions, North/South divisions—those rifts were ripped open by the Civil War.”
I left out reviewing a few very good subplots for they would be spoilers. Between the alternating timelines, I preferred the story in the past. The present-day timeline borders on preachy. How we long for careers that ultimately fail to bring happiness or sometimes not even financial stability. How spoiled we can be. How we want and waste. All true, but no one likes a lecture in the middle of a story no matter how much you may like the plot and the characters. Oddly, the past felt fresh. I enjoyed reading about young America’s growing pains. How hard the scientific minds had to fight to be heard. I do have a rather petty criticism on the writing. The words “sheltered” and “unsheltered” come up repeatedly. It felt as if Kingsolver didn’t think her audience capable of making the connections. I don’t believe that in her book ‘Poisonwood Bible,’ (which is about a missionary family in the Belgian Congo) the title words pop up at all. She trusted that her readers would make the connection that, like a poisonwood tree, religion too can become dangerous when mishandled. This does not mean that I didn’t enjoy “Unsheltered,” for I very much did. And, will not think twice about recommending the book. As usual, Kingsolver gives her readers plenty to wonder about. In this novel, she does an amazing job of penning an engaging story about human existence combined with a well-researched tale on past and present American politics.