With authors I value, like Barbara Kingsolver, the wait for a new work can often be lengthy. My wait was amply rewarded. In Unsheltered–2018 HarperCollins–she had created parallel narratives that articulate across two centuries in the American experience. Her device is a house and property shared by the characters in different centuries. The 21st Century Wilma and 19th Century Thatcher are adults navigating giant shifts in social paradigms. For Wilma and her family it is the economic collapse of the middle class and the dissolution of the ideals her generation pursued. Climate change knocks ominously at her door. For Thatcher it a pre-Darwin American culture in a panic to hold onto Christian perspectives by rejecting rational observation of how the world works (akin to today’s denial of science).
Wilma’s multigenerational family reflects at once a 1) disenfranchised, racist white America (grandfather); 2) boomer parents (Wilma and Iano); 3) grown kids who pursued differing paths–Harvard financial education (Zeke), and post-apocalyptic youth (Tig). Add Baby Dusty, Wilma’s grandson whom she is mothering after the death of Zeke’s wife, and you have four generations, each navigating their own realities. The dialogue along the way explores the contemporary ocean of conflicting values and ideas of today’s American society with our economic, social, and environmental challenges.
Unsheltered is a nuanced conversation between Kingsolver, her characters, and the reader that is slow at times but never boring and long enough to examine previous and contemporary times for understanding the confabulations of collective memory–an existential wail of ‘Who are we?’
Twenty-something Tig exclaims to her mother, “The guys in charge of everything right now are so old. They really are, Mom. Older than you. They figured out the meaning of life in, I guess, the nineteen fifties and sixties. When it looked like there would always be plenty of everything. And they’re still applying that to now. It’s just so ridiculous.”
For individuals like me, awash in Trump-a-Con, Unsheltered is a beacon. Kinsolver’s Afterward explains her own journey to understand “the times”, explaining to readers how she wrote a novel about real historical figures and set the novel in South Jersey in a small town, Vineland. Along the way, she traveled many miles, including London where walked in the footsteps of Charles Darwin.
This book is a needed contribution to understanding our time as one when the “world as we know it” appears to be ending. It is ultimately a great story that takes us into the author’s creative mind. I am so grateful to Kingsolver!