Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver: A review

Is it my flawed memory or have there been an unusual number of new books out this year that have featured a house as a central character? It seems to me that many of the books that I've read recently have had a house as an important element in the plot. And now here comes Barbara Kingsolver's contribution to the genre. 

Perhaps the emphasis on houses - shelters - is a reflection of the unsettled times in which we live when it seems only natural to long for sanctuary and asylum from the daily onslaught of ineptitude, belligerence, and outright brainlessness that seem to rule our national life. There is the understandable fear that the shelter which has always protected us is being ripped apart piece by piece. We are literally becoming unsheltered.

Then again perhaps I am projecting my own opinions onto the author.

Nevertheless, the characters in Kingsolver's book are in danger of becoming unsheltered as the house in which they live is unstable with the roof caving in and walls collapsing. It is true of two distinct sets of characters, with whom she presents us, from two different centuries. 

First we meet Willa Knox and her family. It is 2016 and Willa and her husband have just lost their jobs in Virginia - Willa as a magazine editor and her husband as a professor - when both of the entities they worked for closed. The family has moved to a house that Willa inherited in the community of Vineland outside of Philadelphia where her husband has obtained a new job. The house, like their lives, is falling apart.

Our first view of Willa is at her meeting with a contractor who tells her, "The simplest thing would be to tear it down." To do the necessary renovation and repairs would be prohibitively expensive.

The more than century-old house is a shambles but it will shelter Willa, her husband Iano, Iano's Greek immigrant father Nick, Willa's and Iano's daughter Tig (Antigone), and soon their son Zeke's newborn son for whom he, as a single and destitute father after the suicide death of the boy's mother, is unable to care. Oh, yes, and their ancient dog named Dixie. The shambles of a house is matched by the shambles of their lives.

Nearly 150 years earlier, in the 1870s, another family lived on the same acreage. Schoolteacher Thatcher Greenwood and his new wife Rose, her mother Aurelia and her sister Polly along with two large hounds named Scylla and Charybdis live in a decaying house and they, too, do not have the money to do repairs and so must endure the privations. 

Thatcher and Rose are poorly matched; he is a man of science and she is only interested in society and appearances. Theirs seems a doomed alliance from the start.

In time, Thatcher meets their next door neighbor, Mary Treat, a real-life naturalist who carried on extensive correspondences with Charles Darwin as well as many other scientists of the day. They are kindred spirits and she becomes a major influence on his life and work.

Willa Knox hopes to prove that their house has historical significance because of the Treat/Greenwood connection and thus to get a grant to restore and preserve it. It's the only hope she has for saving it.

The tracks of the lives of these two families run parallel in many ways. Not only do they occupy crumbling houses but they each live in a time of economic uncertainty when the truth of scientific inquiry is denied and all of its evidence dismissed because it doesn't agree with the "gut feeling" of its "very intelligent" opponents. In the case of the Greenwood family the scientific inquiry is Darwin's and in the Knox family's lives it is the conclusions regarding global climate change. 

These two parallel narratives reflect each other occasionally in surprising ways, but, taken together, they present a thoroughly absorbing story of human adaptability and survival instinct. They also provide us with a cautionary tale of where fear and denialism can take us:
“I suppose it is in our nature,” she said finally. “When men fear the loss of what they know, they will follow any tyrant who promises to restore the old order.”
My rating: 5 of 5 stars


  1. I agree with the quote, though probably for different reasons. You seem to have liked this book more than most bloggers whose reviews of this book I have read. Glad that it struck the right chord with you.

    1. I noticed some reviewers on Goodreads gave the book one or two stars, objecting to what they called Kingsolver's "preachiness" and the fact that politics play a part in the plot. All of Kingsolver's books - at least all that I have read - reflect the social and political times in which they are written. What those reviewers called preaching, I saw as her way of comparing and contrasting the two eras that she was writing about. There are, in fact, a lot of similarities.

  2. I just picked this up at the library yesterday. Can't wait to dive in! Who are these anti-preaching readers? Respect your wise elder woman people and listen up!


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