The novel “Unsheltered” by Barbara Kingsolver does not perhaps reach the literary heights of “The Poisonwood Bible” or “The Bean Trees”. Yet Kingsolver’s latest work still packs a prophetic punch.
Two parallel stories unfold in the same place with over a one hundred year gap between them. In the modern story, Willa Knox, an endearing and unorthodox grandmother, tries to guide her disparate family through the loss of financial security and middle-class status. Despite long years of toil at third level teaching and journalism, the family is sinking slowly below the poverty level. The rabidly conservative great Grand-father is terminally ill and requires constant attention. Willa has two children, her darling son Zeke and her rebel daughter Tig. Zeke’s wife commits suicide and leaves Willa with a grand-son to take care of.
Kingsolver’s description of this family, of a happy marriage in an unhappy world, is deft, poignant and profound. The restoration of the sacred family space that is constantly being invaded by work obligations through computer and smart-phone is Willa’s crowning achievement even while she appears to fail. The radical ecological position of the rebel daughter, Tig, slowly seems more and more coherent while the compromised capitalist position of the dutiful son Zeke becomes morally bankrupt as time moves on. Tig’s own transformation into caring mother of her abandoned nephew confirms this moral turn around.
The second story revolves around a progressive school teacher, Thatcher Greenwood, who befriends a scientist, Mary Treat, who is researching plants and animals of the area. The prose in this second story feels more clunky and labored in comparison to the smooth flow and rich family dialogue of the first story. Yet the effort to unravel the historical origins of the physical houses being lived in serves to emphasize the failure of the Utopian vision of a new society in Vineland.
Both stories underline the conviction that all modern families are headed into an ecological “Armageddon” from which there can be no escape and no shelter.
In this sense, “Unsheltered” is a prophetic novel. After reading it, one is faced with a choice. One can opt for the radical position of Tig, and refuse all compromise with the capitalist economy of consumption. Or one can opt for the compromise position of Zeke to work for the survival of the fittest. There is no more in-between possible. Either way ecological disaster is only around the corner.