I hadn’t heard of the intriguing name, Barbara Kingsolver, until a friend mentioned it in reply to a Facebook comment about the climate change marches being held by young people around the globe. The inside cover of Unsheltered promises to “give us all a closer look at those around us and perhaps ourselves” and it certainly delivered on that promise for me.
The chapters alternate between two time periods, both of which are facing a sea change. In 1871 Thatcher Greenwood, Mary Treat and Uri Carruth are a ripple, but they will become a tide. That’s why the town of Vineland and its pernicious overlord Captain Landis resists them with all of its means. Enlightenment is coming, science is revealing truths that are shaking the foundations of man’s place in the world, and while inquisitive minds embrace the new world comfortable men fear the loss of theirs.
In 2016, the world is shaking again. The American Dream is burning itself out and taking the whole planet with it. The Tavoularis family are discovering that it isn’t only the foundations of their house that are failing but all the assumptions that underpinned their lives. Grandpa Nick revels in the populist rhetoric of The Bullhorn, a rapidly rising presidential candidate, the modern day Landis promising to stem the tide and protect his subjects, just like Landis with lies and self-interest.
Parents Willa and Iano can’t understand how come they did everything they were told was right only to end up at the bottom of the heap. They worked hard, they chased the dream, but it has turned out to be hollow and the sacrifices no longer make sense. Son Zeke is dealing with grief by throwing himself into his own version of the old rules, money makes the world goes round and he’s after his share, too caught up in his own needs to see the trail he leaves behind.
Then there is Antigone. Wild Thing, I think I love you. ‘Tig’ who would cut me down in an instant because she lives what I only think about. She sees the world with such clarity, certain of its uncertainty created by the self-indulgences of her parents and grandparents assumptions that are rooted in an obsolete time. Weighing her righteous anger against a potent pragmatism and a graceful compassion.
The novel explores people in a shifting world. To use the author’s own words from an interview in the Guardian, “What do people do when it feels like they’re living through the end of the world as we know it? Because that’s what it seems like we’re doing right now, and almost nobody disagrees. And maybe people said that 10 years ago, but now they’re really saying ‘WTF?’”. It really is writing that speaks to our time and although the portents are bleak, I believe Kingsolver offers genuine hope for those who are ready to “push the fallen bricks aside and see the sky”.
I honestly cannot recommend Unsheltered enough. Read it and then pass it round or buy copies for your family and friends so that you can explore its questions together, there are no more important questions than these right now.