Reviewed by Shirley Oskamp
Have in the Library? Yes!
I am not sure exactly how the conversation began, whether we started by talking about books we were reading and authors we particularly enjoy, or about the imminent closure of our beloved college. Because of Green Mountain College closing, my colleague, Heather, and her family are moving from Vermont to Blacksburg, Virginia where she and her husband will teach. “My daughter lives down there, not too far from where you are going” I said to her. “Well, then, you have to come and visit us on your way down to see her,” she replied, “and we will go to eat at Barbara Kingsolver’s restaurant.” I asked if she had read Barbara’s most recent novel, “Unsheltered”. Heather looked at me with a funny expression on her face, and then the expression cleared as she said, “I just can’t read that right now.” I didn’t understand right away why she would say that, but then I stood there and it was as if she communicated telepathically.
The book focuses on Willa, whose husband who is a professor and just lost his job when his small liberal arts college closed. As a result, they had to move from the home and community they loved to a new place where they felt very alienated. In the new place, the house they are living in, and the only one they could afford, is falling apart – physically splitting down the middle. There is a whole lot more going on in the story; many things besides the house itself are falling apart in this family’s life. As I looked into my friend’s eyes, I saw the harsh reality that when things fall apart, it is enough, more than enough, to make a person feel exposed to the vagaries of the world and not in a good way.
Barbara Kingsolver’s novel weaves back and forth between this contemporary family whose life is frighteningly similar to those of my colleagues and so many others whose small liberal arts colleges are closing, and the days of Charles Darwin. The second storyline focuses on a newly-hired high school teacher, Thatcher Greenwood, and his family who live in the same house, as the cracks are initially starting to threaten its integrity. The teacher, facing an entire community bent on denying Darwin’s theories and refusing to allow him to bring any current science into his classes, strikes up a friendship with his next-door-neighbor, a woman who corresponds with Darwin and other luminaries of the time about her scientific observations in the natural world near her home in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey.
“Unsheltered” is about facing change and uncertainty while striving to hold onto one’s sense of self. Some of these changes are personal, while others are as large as the furor around Darwin’s concept of evolution in a world that was not ready or willing to imagine new ways of thinking. A particularly strong aspect of the novel is the relationship between Willa and her grown daughter, Tig. The author uses their conversations to consider the issue of climate change and its ties to consumerism and individualism. “Unsheltered” is about confronting the fault lines in our lives in ways that are honest and true despite society’s unwillingness to consider it’s complicity in the challenges all around us. Kingsolver’s novel is a highly readable perspective on creating a sustainable life in a times of uncertainty and upheaval.