Although I haven’t found the time to satisfy my voracious reading appetite (cue retirement while in my 70’s), I have read more literature this year than in previous recent years. (Yay, me!) Of the novels I’ve devoured, my top pick is Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered (Harper, 2018).
I’ve been a Kingsolver fan since Professor Jane Campbell at Purdue University Northwest (then Calumet) assigned her work, The Bean Trees, to a class that I was enrolled in as an English grad student. I can still feel the magic of the young female protagonist daring to strike off on her own to discover who she is and finding both family and greater purpose along the journey. It made me, a 20-something, think about life’s purpose in new ways. Since then, I’ve read most of Kingsolver’s fiction. I find the author to be as powerful as Toni Morrison, yet her words leave me inspired instead of haunted. (Please keep in mind that I’m a HUGE Morrison fan as well and value a good mental haunting!)
Although I appreciated reading Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior (Harper Perennial, 2012), in which global warming is addressed through the migration pattern of Monarch butterflies, I did not feel that it was her best writing. It lacked the level of complexity that I had come to expect and enjoy. Unsheltered, on the other hand, exemplifies her finest, as it is both timely and thought provoking.
In Unsheltered, Kingsolver offers a braided narrative set in two time periods, the late 1800’s and modern day, in which the respective protagonists, Thatcher and Willa, are connected by address – they live on the same plot of land, in homes structurally unsound, physically and metaphorically.
Thatcher is a science teacher who has improved his station in life and married a woman from an affluent background. They, along with her mother and sister, have returned to her childhood home in Vineland, New Jersey, a supposed alcohol-free Utopian society based upon agriculture and progressive thinking. Soon, Thatcher learns that he is living next door to Mary Treat (a real historical figure!), a naturalist who corresponds with Charles Darwin, whom he gets to know. Set shortly after the publication of On the Origin of Species, the plot vacillates between the response to evolution by Christians and an examination of women’s roles during the Victorian era. I invested in the characters and appreciated this braid, especially how Kingsolver portrayed Treat. However, it was the contemporary braid that “wowed” me.
Willa (yes, after Cather) Knox is an unemployed freelance journalist whose family is in crisis. She and her recently underemployed husband are sandwich generation, between her husband’s dying father, a die-hard Republican, and their adult children, a businessman and a progressive, returned to the roost and in crisis. In this story, everything from their dialogue, including use of rather surprising Greek idioms by the father and grandfather, to their struggles, to Willa’s thoughts, make the reader feel as if between the walls of the Knox’s collapsing abode, instead of pages in a book. The saga is relatable in that it addresses issues faced by families every day and does so within the context of our current national and global political, economic, and ecological climates.
Without giving away too much more of this strand, I’ll say that it made me consider the answers to the following questions:
- What does it mean to be family?
- What does it mean to live in a global economy that has an unsustainable model?
- How can we deal with the widening divide between liberals and conservatives?
- What does it mean to us to live on a planet with finite resources?
- What does it mean to live on a planet that is experiencing global warming?
- In what ways should we let go of thinking, traditions, and material weight that proves and paves our existences?
- How do we need to change our thinking in relation to the above-mentioned questions?
- When should established members of society let members who see the world through new and perhaps more focused eyes begin to lead?
- What does it mean to be “unsheltered”?
- In what ways can we view being without shelter?
Unsheltered is a New York Times Best Seller, an NPR selection for Best Books of 2018, and one of Newsweek‘s Best Books of the year.
If you feel overwhelmed by our world gone mad, give Unsheltered a go. Kingsolver’s words will remind you to breathe deeply and refocus on what’s crucial.
#unsheltered #barbarakingsolver #bestnovelsof2018