A sweeping tale of two families coping with turbulent times, from the author of The Poisonwood Bible.
Good to know
- Nonchronological timeline
- Contains irony and political criticism
- Character-driven and philosophically-oriented
Why I love it
BOTM Editorial Team
My first apartment was a shared ground floor studio that was loud, ant-infested, and basically a glorified dorm room. But get this: Bob Dylan used to live there—or so our broker told us—and what’s personal space compared to proximity to a legend? So when Willa Knox, the protagonist of Unsheltered, is determined to prove that a remarkable historical figure once inhabited her otherwise invaluable home, I got it; there’s something special about learning who walked your floors.
And Willa could use a little something special, because things have not gone according to plan. Her income is shabby, her full-grown children are back in the crumbling nest, and she’s left caring for a Scrooge-like father-in-law who’s also her ideological nemesis. In a parallel narrative that takes place 200 years prior—and in the same home—Thatcher Greenwood, a science teacher coping with equally tumultuous times, finds himself on trial in his community for teaching the theories of Darwin.
As I savored this sensory, slow burn of a book, I found myself rooting for Willa and Thatcher, two flawed but well-meaning people fighting for dignity amidst personal upheaval. Their twin stories (told in alternating chapters) underscore how ideologies divide communities—but they also show how empathy can forge unlikely connections between people who, though different, all want what’s best for the people they love. It’s no secret that Kingsolver is a master of her craft, and Unsheltered once again proves she’s got the whole package.
How could two hardworking people do everything right in life, a woman asks, and end up destitute? Willa Knox and her husband followed all the rules as responsible parents and professionals, and have nothing to show for it but debts and an inherited brick house that is falling apart. The magazine where Willa worked has folded; the college where her husband had tenure has closed. Their dubious shelter is also the only option for a disabled father-in-law and an exasperating, free-spirited daughter. When the family’s one success story, an Ivy-educated son, is uprooted by tragedy he seems likely to join them, with dark complications of his own.
In another time, a troubled husband and public servant asks, How can a man tell the truth, and be reviled for it? A science teacher with a passion for honest investigation, Thatcher Greenwood finds himself under siege: his employer forbids him to speak of the exciting work just published by Charles Darwin. His young bride and social-climbing mother-in-law bristle at the risk of scandal, and dismiss his worries that their elegant house is unsound. In a village ostensibly founded as a benevolent Utopia, Thatcher wants only to honor his duties, but his friendships with a woman scientist and a renegade newspaper editor threaten to draw him into a vendetta with the town’s powerful men.
Unsheltered is the compulsively readable story of two families, in two centuries, who live at the corner of Sixth and Plum in Vineland, New Jersey, navigating what seems to be the end of the world as they know it. With history as their tantalizing canvas, these characters paint a startlingly relevant portrait of life in precarious times when the foundations of the past have failed to prepare us for the future.
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