“Unsheltered, I live in daylight. And like the wandering bird I rest in thee.”
Neither Willa Knox nor Thatcher Greenwood are resting easily in the house that binds them in Barbara Kingsolver’s “Unsheltered,” a novel that follows the paths of these two families from two different time periods. The Knox family is our voice in the present while the Greenwood family takes us back to the 1880s.
We learn everything about the Knox family through matriarch Willa. A writer, Willa’s world gets a jolt when the magazine she works for closes. Adding to that misery is her husband losing tenure when the college he works for closes. With her crabby father-in-law and new-age daughter Tig in tow, the family moves into a house they inherited in Vineland, New Jersey only to discover it is two breaths away from falling apart. But there is more in store for Willa and her family. Their Harvard-educated son Zeke experiences a horrible tragedy that results in him and his infant son moving with the rest of the family. Desperate to help alleviate their financial failings, Willa beings to investigate the history of the house in hopes it will provide a good enough story for the local historical society to help rebuild it.
Enter recently married Thatcher Greenwood, a science teacher who has the luck to be alive in the 1880s when the natural world is brimming with discoveries. Many of these discoveries are spearheaded by a man he greatly admires – Charles Darwin. But Thatcher realizes that not everyone is as enamored with Darwin as he, and that association could be problematic for his future and his marriage. Then he finds a kindred spirit-in-science with his neighbor, naturalist Mary Treat. That Mary corresponds with Charles Darwin makes her even more intriguing to him. As their bond grows, so does the animosity towards them and their “radical” scientific ideas. But as with the Knoxes, the problems are only starting for Thatcher as he tries to convince his society-conscious wife and mother-in-law that their house is structurally unsound.
What brings these two disparate stories together is the house in Vineland, New Jersey. The run down, dilapidated house that Willa and her husband are trying to salvage is the exact same one where Thatcher and his wife Rose live. Willa learns of Mary Treat and starts to piece together the history of the house and Vineland while in the 1880s, we learn from Thatcher what building mistakes made the house a wreck even in then. Each family suffers similar problems, the first being the house and the second very shaky financial means. One story has a more tragic event than the other but in the end, they both move on in positive directions for each family.
Kingsolver uses an interesting construct by taking the last words from one chapter and making them the title of the next. I was surprised how this helped tie the chapters together. My favorite chapters in “Unsheltered” were with Thatcher Greenwood and Mary Treat. It was fun to discover in the Acknowledgements that Mary actually existed, as did Vineland and its more sinister characters. I do love when a fictional story introduces me to a non-fictional person. The Knox storyline was okay but Kingsolver uses them to go off on political discourses, many which were heavy handed. If I wanted to read someone’s opinion on the state of the world, I would close the book and turn on the news. Willa’s daughter Tig is an intriguing character and her story arc ends up in a surprising way. On the Greenwood side, Thatcher’s sister-in-law Polly provides great comic relief. But it is the burgeoning friendship and mutual admiration of Thatcher and Mary that caught my attention.
“You and I are not like other people. We perceive infinite nature as a fascination, not as a threat to our sovereignty… When the nuisance of old mythologies falls away from us, we may see with new eyes.”
I hope you’re starting the New Year with a great reading goal!