Novelist Barbara Kingsolver has always embraced the prophetic voice. In exceptionally intelligent works that include “The Poisonwood Bible,” “The Lacuna” and “Flight Behavior,” she has put her gifts as a writer and biologist to work telling vivid stories that aim to expose America’s fault lines — anti-intellectualism, the unholy tangle of patriotism and religion, unfettered market forces and the destruction of the natural world.
In a brief introduction to her latest, “Unsheltered,” she lets readers know that she’s about to unleash another literary juggernaut at the powers that be. Declaring America to be in “dangerously uncertain times,” she says “it seemed useful to look at other times in history when the fabric of convention was falling apart.”
“Unsheltered” features two parallel narratives, each set in a deteriorating old house on a corner lot in Vineland, N.J., a real city deeply researched by Kingsolver. The modern-day thread explores the falling fortunes of Willa Knox, a journalist whose magazine tanked; her professor husband, Iano, who has lost tenure; their adult son, Zeke, whose wife has died by suicide, leaving him with staggering debts and a baby he’s not sure he wants; daughter Tig, a rebellious and secretly heartbroken young woman; and Iano’s dying old father, Nick, who rants about immigrants and “Obamacare,” despite the saving presence of both in his own life.
The historical thread zooms back to the 1870s, in a chaotic war-scarred nation. Thatcher Greenwood, an idealistic science teacher at a school in the allegedly Utopian village of Vineland, is under fire from the town’s founder, as well as from his own family, for including Darwin’s theory of evolution in his curriculum. Thatcher forms a (platonic) bond with a neighbor, Mary Treat, a brilliant scientist (and a real person), as well as with Uri Carruth, a journalist who delights in poking fun at hypocrisy and ignorance.
What these protagonists from different centuries have in common is an old house, in both cases one literally falling down, leaving them, well, “unsheltered.” They’re left exposed in broader ways, too, as their dreams and expectations about the lives they’d long assumed they’d lead are stripped away.
Willa is forever fretting about the leader she calls “the Bullhorn” — “a mean, grabby, self-aggrandizing man.” It’s pretty clear who that is. She worries about lost pensions, absurdly high medical bills, increasingly violent storms and wealth disparities between the rich and everyone else, including her once middle-class family.
Thatcher Greenwood is similarly beset by forces greater than himself — leaders who deploy a sanctimonious Christianity to push back at science and who even turn murderous when mocked.
Thankfully, both of these exceedingly depressing narratives, which play out largely in endless passionate dialogues — wow, can these characters talk — are redeemed by sophisticated storytelling, compelling characters and sharp humor that slides in whenever the reader is tempted to toss the book, and him/herself, off the nearest precipice. Both stories end hopefully, though only after the protagonists have been forced to conclude that their lives will never be the same, and that they will have to find new ways to live.
It’s a safe bet that President Donald Trump will not read this novel. But many Americans will, and they’ll come away with a broader understanding of how our past, present and future are linked, for better or worse. Kingsolver is a writer who can help us understand and navigate the chaos of these times. Only time itself will tell us whether her prophetic declarations were on the mark.
Pamela Miller is a Star Tribune night metro editor.
By: Barbara Kingsolver.
Publisher: Harper, 480 pages, $29.99.