“Unsheltered”

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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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Milkman

While I was reading Milkman, I could only read a few pages at a time. Then I had to stop to think. I found that I could not read the novel quickly which struck me as quite unusual. Each minor, seemingly insignificant, incident in the story seemed to me pregnant with deeper meaning (the discovery of the cat’s head on the road home, for example).

Milkman is the most interesting Irish novel that I have read in years.  Three good friends of mine grew up in the troubled heartlands of Belfast.  I also spent some time in a home for young offenders in the early eighties in County Down and as a hospital chaplain in Belfast in the early nineties.  These experiences enabled me to appreciate that Anna Burns has captured a historical “truth” in her novel in a surprisingly similar way to Caroline Brothers in her novel, The Memory Stones, about the military dictatorship in Argentina. Continue reading “Milkman”

The Memory Stones

I read a novel recently about Argentina. This novel made me think. The title is “The Memory Stones” and it was written by Caroline Brothers.

I read a novel recently about Argentina. This novel made me think. The title is “The Memory Stones” and it was written by Caroline Brothers. The novel describes how a father and mother respond to the sudden disappearance of their daughter, Graciela, who was a university student at the time. Graciela was secretly arrested by the military “junta” which seized power after a military coup in Argentina in 1976. The Army Generals overthrew the democratically-elected government. They judged any student activists who helped poor people to be communist revolutionaries who should be eliminated from society.

When I asked the author Caroline Brothers why she tried to record the truth of these historical events in a novel rather than a biography, she replied as follows: “I’d spoken to a lot of people who lived thru these things & felt mistakes would dishonour their experiences. Fiction is often ambiguous about facts, so I wanted readers to know they could trust the historical bones of this book even if the characters were imagined”.

Before this event, Graciela’s family lived happily together even though their country was not rich. In fact, Graciela had kept a secret which she had not yet told her parents. She planned to marry her boyfriend and was already pregnant with his child. Graciela was tortured and killed by the military. She became one of the tens of thousands of “the disappeared” who vanished from Argentina after their secret arrest. Her body was dropped into the ocean at night from a military plane along with so many other bodies. Her boyfriend was also murdered.

However, before she died Graciela gave birth in prison to a baby daughter. Graciela’s daughter was taken by the military officer in charge of the torture and execution of the prisoners and he and his wife raised her as their own child. However the real grandmother and grandfather found out about the baby and spend the next twenty years trying to find her. Their love for their dead daughter kept pushing them to search for their granddaughter. They never give up even when all hope seems lost. The grand-mother died from her efforts. But the granddaughter eventually discovers the truth about her identity. She finds her grandfather and the rest of her true family in the end. This novel moved me so much because it reminded me what a blessing it is to live in a democratic and free society. Whether the society is poor or rich, is not really important.

It is democratic freedom that allows families to live and love in peace. When this freedom disappears, the love of family members for each other is the only force capable of bringing change.

Hillbilly Elegy

The interesting insight of this autobiography is that these working-class white people seemed to be descendants of the older Scots-Irish immigrants who had settled to farm in the rough Appalachian mountains of eastern Kentucky in the 18th and 19th centuries.

After Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, I had an animated discussion with a close family friend about his supporters. This family friend has lived in the US for many years and like many immigrants, she supported the Democratic Party. The question we were discussing was why did so many of the white working class vote for Trump? I have since read an autobiography called “Hillbilly Elegy” by JD Vance, who describes his childhood growing up in a poor white working-class family outside a large industrial town in Ohio.

Continue reading “Hillbilly Elegy”

History of a Nightmare

Book Review: Pol Pot, The History of a Nightmare by Philip Short (Published 2004 John Murray)

Philip Short begins his acknowledgements by commenting that “History is to a great extent detective work”. He thanks the many people who helped his “assemble the mosaic of fragments of truths, half-truths and lies” on which the book is based.

Continue reading “History of a Nightmare”