“…without shelter, we stand in daylight.”
Barbara Kingsolver’s new book Unsheltered grew on me slowly until the final chapters found me reading at 2 AM. The shelter is a falling down old brick house- literally- at Sixth and Plum in Vineland, New Jersey. The residents are two different families who live at this location a century apart. Willa and her family live there in our decade, and the Greenwoods live in the house during the mid to late 19th century. Both families are struggling to reconcile life as they know it with familial and societal changes over which they have no control. Both families have to learn to maneuver these challenges with all the grace they can possibly muster. Shelter becomes a metaphor for a dwelling- “You can’t shelter in a place when there isn’t a place”; a sense of community- “I saw you and Dad…hitching your wagon to the tenure star…you made such a big deal about security that you sacrificed giving us any long-term community”; relationships that shelter our spirits, such as Mary and Thatcher’s professional relationship as well as Willa and her husband Iano; and finally our vocations that shelter our interests and passions which aren’t always synonymous with job security. Life can also shelter us or not which Willa and Thatcher both discover in painful ways. Tig, Willa’s daughter, tells her mother, “Everybody your age is, like, crouching inside this box made of what they already believe. You think it’s a fallout shelter or something but it’s a piece of shit box, Mom. It’s a cardboard, drowning in the rain, going all floppy. And you’re saying, ‘This is all there is, it will hold up fine. This box will keep me safe.'” Ouch. Life throws us curveballs, and it’s hard to adapt, especially when truth isn’t thought to be relevant as Thatcher realizes. He wonders, “How can a man tell the truth, and be reviled for it?”
Unsheltered is historical fictional with real people interacting with fictional characters. Vineland, New Jersey is a real place which was settled as an utopian community in 1861 by Charles Landis who wanted a progressive, alcohol free community. Education was of the utmost importance both for girls and children with special needs. Landis was a control freak who murdered a local journalist who published articles about the oppressive atmosphere in Vineland and publicly questions the mental state of Landis’s wife. Landis pleaded not guilty based on insanity which is a first and was found not guilty. Many famous people are associated with Vineland, including Mary Treat (1830-1923). Treat was a self-educated naturalist/botanist who authored a book on insects. She plays a vital role in the story as a confidante and friend of fictional Thatcher Greenwood. In real life Treat was a regular correspondent with Charles Darwin.
Speaking of Darwin, he is a main character because in the mid to late 19th century, Thatcher, a scientist and instructor at a school in Vineland has to constantly defend Darwin’s theories and teaching scientific method to Mr. Cutler, a controlling administrator and lackey of Landis. In fact Thatcher gets fired because he will not teach what we today would call creationism. Classic arguments of religion versus science- some we still hear today. Cutler is described as believing a “brand of science [that] is an edifice built of scriptures and saints.” He quotes Genesis 8:19 to Thatcher and then tells him God parted the waters of the Atlantic Ocean so animals originally on the ark could walk over to the Western Hemisphere. It’s a great scene!
The novel is loaded with great characters and great quotes. Kingsolver is able to develop the oppressive atmosphere of the Victorian age as well as the chaos of our decade. We are such products of our environment and culture unless we actively and mindfully work to see through the veil, and often there are consequences attached to that exercise. And yet, most of the time it’s worth it.
“To stand in the clear light of day, unsheltered.”