Is Kingsolver too political in this novel, Unsheltered?
Unsheltered, Barbara Kingsolver
Genre: General Fiction
Published 2018, 480 pages
I'm a longtime Kingsolver fan, primarily due to The Poisonwood Bible. For me, this book is a mixed bag. Set in alternating time frames, the 1870s and 2016, the two storylines have similarities. I liked that format for this book. In both cases the male characters are teachers and have lost or are losing their jobs. In both cases there are female characters who are bucking the establishment, trying to make a difference (Mary in 1900s and Tig in 2016). Also, in both timelines the families are living in ramshackle homes in desperate need of repair but with no funds to do so.
Many of the reviews I read complained of Kingsolver's propensity to promote her political/societal beliefs to the detriment of the story. She does tend to that with most of her books, so it shouldn't be a surprise. Certainly in 2016, she created the character of Tig, the activist daughter who rails against politicians in power and how they're hurting the country; she rails against climate change and racism. So, yes, political. However, the family is also dealing with things like job loss in their 50s but they can't afford retirement yet and the care of an elderly parent. Both very real-life situations.
That being said, I did prefer the earlier time frame of the story with Mary Treat and Thatcher. In fact, I could have read a whole book based on them. I loved the botany and scientific bent of that story and was surprised to discover that Mary Treat is a real woman, a scientist in the 1900s who actually did have correspondence with many scientists of her time, including Darwin. Her fight to win acceptance as a female scientist is inspiring. Her friendship with Thatcher is comfortable and enjoyable to read. Thatcher's efforts to hold onto his science teaching job and teach Darwinism against a headmaster who refuses any explanation for anything except religious could be true today.
“If trained to nature from an early age, could a mind be freed from its vendetta against the world's creatures?”
The modern day story line of Unsheltered I found less compelling, probably partly because I got tired of Willa's (the mom) problems - the kids, the elderly parent, trying to make enough money to support the family - too much of a long-suffering wife role. And the bickering between the siblings got really tiresome and too clearly political. They held opposing views on EVERYTHING. However, I felt that the characters embodied the two opposing views well.....I just didn't find it very interesting.
“I suppose it is in our nature,” she said finally. “When men fear the loss of what they know, they will follow any tyrant who promises to restore the old order.”
The transitions between eras was so smoothly done - a clever technique was to title each chapter with the final words of the previous chapter, providing a cohesive connection. All in all, a solid story, though not my favorite of hers, and would be a good book club choice - lots of themes to discuss.
Photos by Terrie Purkey