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Unsheltered, to see ourselves more clearly

In the middle of Barbara Kingsolver’s novel, Unsheltered, two of her characters talk about the unusual word she uses for her title. Mary Treat observes that a biology teacher must take his students out of doors, must “teach them to see evidence for themselves, and not to fear it.” That teacher, Thatcher Greenwood, responds to his mentor, “To stand in the clear light of day, you once said. Unsheltered.” Essentially, that is what all the characters in Unsheltered are learning to do, to see themselves clearly, to acknowledge the evidence of their behavior, and then to behave in new, more productive ways.

Mary and Thatcher are neighbors, denizens of Vineland, a semi-Utopian settlement that existed in late nineteenth-century New Jersey. Mary existed, too. She was, in her lifetime, a highly-regarded, self-taught scientist who meticulously studied and collected both flora and fauna in the nearby Pine Barrens. A staunch advocate of burgeoning theories of natural selection, she corresponded regularly with evolutionary notables like England’s Charles Darwin and Harvard’s Asa Gray. Thatcher, a local science teacher, is a fictional construct designed by Kingsolver to insert discussions about evolution into the high school curriculum. His role precipitates half of the Unsheltered’s action and underlies most of the philosophical musings about Darwinism and its effect on religious thinking at the time.

The other half of Kingsolver’s novel takes place more than a hundred and fifty years later when another family takes shelter in a badly-constructed old house on the same block where Mary and Thatcher lived. Willa Knox inherited the ramshackle dwelling. She and her husband are forced to take refuge in their new home after a recession eliminates both of their jobs. They are joined by Willa’s terminally ill, cantankerous father-in-law, an infant grandson, and the couple’s two adult children, suddenly living with their parents again. Barely sheltered in their dilapidated house, Willa and her family must unshelter themselves psychologically and metaphorically, laying to rest old grievances and misunderstandings.

There is another connection between these two disparate Vineland narratives, too. Hoping to prove that her home belongs on the national register of historic buildings, thus making it eligible for grant money to repair its sorry state, Willa combs the archives of the Vineland historical society. And discovers Mary Treat. And soon discovers the Pine Barrens nearby. Willa’s story delves only slightly into evolutionary theory. The evidence of natural selection, however, is playing out in her family, as the reader clearly sees. Kingsolver doesn’t draw any direct lines between the abstractions of Thatcher and Mary and the concrete evidence of Willa’s four-generation household, but I sense that constant echo is key to understanding Unsheltered.

Barbara Kingsolver
Barbara Kingsolver from dj of Flight Behavior

I have always been a fan of Kingsolver’s writing and regularly taught her fiction and nonfiction in my classes. Unsheltered would be fun to teach, too. In subtle ways, it reads like a symposium, a series of colloquies between the various characters: Mary and Thatcher; Thatcher and his autocratic principal who doesn’t believe in evolutionary theory; Thatcher and Charles Landis, the real-life founder of Vineland whose only fealty is to Charles Landis; and Willa and each member of her family, separately, as each duo comes to understand both past and present lapses and miscommunications. There are more debates and tête-à-têtes than concrete actions in Unsheltered, but this fits its design as a novel of ideas rather than a thrill-a-minute novel of heart-stopping adventures. Kingsolver wants her readers to think, think, and think some more. To unshelter, as it were, in the conversational logic of her well-wrought fictional evidence.  – Ann Ronald

Also available by Barbara Kingsolver: How to Fly (In Ten Thousand Easy Lessons); Unsheltered; Flight Behavior; The Lacuna; Animal, Vegetable, Miracle; Last Stand: America’s VirginLands; Small Wonder; Prodigal Summer; The Poisonwood Bible; High Tide in Tucson: Pigs in Heaven; Another America; Animal Dreams; Holding The Line: Women In The Great Arizona Mine Strike; Homeland and Other Stories; The Bean Trees.

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