Book Report #1 – Barbara Kingsolver’s “Unsheltered”

Part of my December Christmas season reinventing this year is doing more writing, working on my too-long abandoned manuscript of my 2015 bike ride across the country created from my blog posts and then just writing more blog posts. This blog post is something new, a book report.

I told a friend I was reading Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered. He asked what it was about, and I bumbled out something about being a story about two families that lived in the same house but in two different time periods. It was such a poor summary of the book, lazy thinking. Writing helps me figure stuff out and forces me to more clearly explain my points. So, I decided to write something like I would write for my students as an example summary. Here’s what I came up with….and tying the book to the season, it would make a good Christmas gift, though not for me since I’ve read it already.

IMG_3217Barbara Kingsolver, Unsheltered

Read early December 2018

Kingsolver built a novel around the inhabitants of a house in Vineland, NJ, switching between those living there in present time and those living there in the late 1800s. What makes Kingsolver’s novels different is that she incorporates history, current events, political tensions, and even science into her fiction without being too heavy handed.  In Unsheltered, the present-day family is narrated by Willa, a woman in her late fifties, and also includes her husband Iano, her dying Greek father-in-law Nick, her daughter Tig and her son Zeke who brings his newborn son Dusty to live with the family after his wife commits suicide. Kingsolver’s focus is on the family, their struggles and dynamics, but their lives and concerns are affected by current socio-political issues — changes in the the economy that make Willa and Iano’s careers in journalism and academics less than successful, Tig’s involvement in the Occupy movement that cause her to reject pursuit of the standard American Dream and belief in the need for continued national economic growth for, Zeke’s Harvard-educated pursuit of financial success, even if he’s trying to do it in a socially responsible way, and Nick’s love of rightwing radio while his body falls apart and the family stressfully tries to find a way to get his insurance to pay for his medical needs.

Every other chapters switches to the voice of Thatcher Greenwood, a science teacher in the Vineland, NJ, a temperance town with utopian tendencies built by Charles Landis in the 1880s. Thatcher has landed there after marrying Rose, a pretty woman obsessed with her own amusements and her place in society. Thatcher meets the neighbor, Mary Treat, a woman who quietly pursues her vocation as a naturalist and even corresponds with Charles Darwin. Treat and Landis are real people who lived in Vineland, a real town, in the late 19th century as well as another character, Uri, who published a newspaper critical of Landis and who Landis shot one day though never jailed for the crime. With Thatcher’s story, we see his struggles to teach evolution and any reason-based science in a school run by a creationist spiritualist . The contrast between Thatcher’s wife Rose and Mary Treat, who Thatcher grows closer and closer to, forces Thatcher and the reader to consider the role of women and what defines womanhood. Also Vineland is supposedly embracing utopian principles but Landis’ town is full of poorly-paid immigrants, something Thatcher sees in the lives of his students.

What makes Kingsolver’s novels so excellent is her ability to develop characters and their relationships with depth and complexity and place them in worlds that incorporate socio/political/economic issues and do so in a way that doesn’t seem forced or just superficially thrown in as window dressing. She makes me care about the characters and think about the issues — a modern day American Balzac. 

And I haven’t even explored the meaning of the title Unsheltered.

Note for my teacher friends: Now that I’ve written this, I see that this book would be a good one to teach in class. Lots of essay topics for students to write about

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