Unsheltered, by Barbara Kingsolver
Two families living in the same ramshackle house in Vineland, New Jersey – but nearly 150 years apart: in Barbara Kingsolver’s latest novel, she has alternating chapters for each family, setting her stories at tumultuous times in America’s history. The novel opens in 2016, election year, when Willa Knox has found out the worst possible news from the local builder: the Vineland house she has inherited from her Aunt is ready to fall down around their ears; in fact the next good storm (and there are so many now, thanks to climate change) will probably finish the old structure off completely. This is not what Willa wants to hear, for she and her husband, university professor Iano Tavoularis have just lost their jobs because the university lost funding and had to close. They are on the bones of their backsides and it’s not a nice feeling.
Schoolteacher Thatcher Greenwood and his new wife and her family settle in Vineland in the 1870’s in a rickety house belonging to his mother-in-law. Vineland has been newly established by land baron Charles Landis, hoping to attract workers for the mills and industries encouraged to build on his land after the Civil War. Reconstruction is booming, as are Landis’s fortunes. Thatcher is smitten with his beautiful little wife, but less so with his incumbent mother-in-law – both of whom wish to keep up the kind of appearances he can ill afford on his salary, and it soon becomes obvious that in his daily classes he will not have permission to teach his pupils about the natural world, particularly the exciting new ideas of Charles Darwin and his own eminent Boston educators. Vineland is Charles Landis’s fiefdom; he is its mayor, he runs its newspaper, its high school: he is king of all he surveys, and radical thought is dangerous thought – it must not be allowed!
Ms Kingsolver draws the reader so expertly into Then and Now that at the end of each chapter I felt sorry to be snatched away from that time zone – until the next chapter grabbed me and wouldn’t let go: Willa’s myriad problems increase with the shocking death of her son’s English girlfriend after she has just given birth, leaving Willa literally holding the baby; her snippy little daughter Tig turns up on their rotting doorstep, hair in dreds and in a foul temper after a mysterious sojourn in Cuba; and Willa’s irascible wheelchair-bound Greek father-in-law is dying, but in the most bad-tempered way possible.
The political and social life and times of each century are beautifully portrayed, including the shameful 21st century materialism and consumerism championed by poliiticians who judge worth by wealth: 19th century mores are exposed in all their ugliness, too, especially the yawning gulf between profligate waste and dire poverty, proving that, as always, nothing changes. This is a great story.. SIX STARS