Barbara Kingsolver’s new novel ‘Unsheltered’ probes new feminist territory in New Jersey history
In a newspaper article in 2015 in New Jersey by Joan Kostiuk, headlined ”Bestselling author Barbara Kingsolver talks about writing, climate change and her next book,” it was first reported that the
popular novelist was working on an outline and a draft of a new novel, set for publication on October 16, 2018 in both the America and Britain.
The novel is now on its way to readers worldwide, but they will have to wait a few more months to dig in. In addition, based on Kingsolver’s international fame, the new novel will likely be translated into 15 languages as well.
While the title of the book was not known at the time, it has now been announced by the publishers in New York and London that the fictional work is titled “Unsheltered.” It will be in bookstores soon (and sold via online book-ordering sites as well).
The novel is set in two different historical time periods in a real town called Vineland in New Jersey — ”South Jersey” — and it revolves around two main characters. One is the real-life Mary Treat, who has been transformed by Kingsolver into the fictional character named Willa Knox.
The other character is a school teacher who is a fictional character as well and an admirer of the British naturalist and evolution theorist Charles Darwin, who Mrs Treat corresponded with 15 times during her lifetime. She was born in 1830 and died in 1923.
Who was Mary Treat? Born in 1830 as Mary Davis to a middle-class family in Trumansburg, New York, she was mostly raised in Ohio, where she attended public and private girls’ schools, according to sources. Davis married Dr. Joseph Burrell Treat, an abolitionist and professor, in 1863 and they lived in Iowa before moving in 1868 they moved to Vineland, an avant-garde progressive intellectual community no longer exists but remains enshrined in the Vineland Historical Society Museum curated by Patricia Martinelli there.
A quick search online will show you just how unique this New Jersey utopian community was in those days when Mary Treat was alive.
When informed that a new American novel will focus on Vineland, Martinelli told this blogger: “Barbara Kingsolver, who is such a gifted writer, already has a number of fans in South Jersey who are eagerly awaiting the arrival of her new book. We believe that its release will go a long way toward generating new interest in Mary Treat and some of the other inventive, innovative people who lived in Vineland, a town that was once nationally recognized as a cultural mecca.”
In 2015 Kingsolver visited Vineland at the local library’s invitation because she was doing research on a new novel-in-progress that was going to be set in the area.
Mary Treat lived in Vineland in the late 1800s and corresponded regularly with the likes of Charles Darwin and other scientists of the day, and she figures to be a central character in the book, although in the final published book, she will be re-imagined as the fictional character Willa Knox. Novelists work this way. They often take a real historical person and transform them through the magic of storytelling and fiction into characters in a novel or a movie. So Kingsolver spent two days in 2015 at the Vineland Historical and Antiquarian Society reviewing Treat’s personal papers and research notes, according to Kostius.
Kingsolver told local audiences in Vineland at the time, that writing, like creating any art, was 95 percent plain hard work, with the other 5 percent being ”magic:” what she termed the “bing!” moment.
So Kingsolver, as you can imagine, is impatient to release her new novel, titled “Unsheltered,” which follows two protagonists who live in the same crumbling house in New Jersey during two troubled periods of American history — 2016 and 1871, according to Australian features reporter Melanie Kembrey who recently detailed the news in a long-distance telephone interview with the US novelist.
Meanwhile, for Patricia Martinelli in Vineland, who is the curator at the museum that has archived many documents about the life of Mary Treat, news of Kingsolver’s new novel is exciting, because it means that more people nationwide and around the world will learn about Vineland and its history.
When this blogger informed Martinelli by email of the new novel set in Vineland, she replied: “Thanks for this information, Danny. You’ve certainly made my week with this news. Vineland was a unique utopian community with a fascinating past; it makes going to work every day here a joy for me.”
Another person who is very interested in the publication of Kingsolver’s new novel in October is the university literature professor Tina Gianquitto in Colorado. She has been active over the year in researching and writing about Mary Treat’s life.
Professor Gianquitto teaches courses in literature and the environment, American literature, and literature and the history of nineteenth-century science, especially the emergence of evolutionary thought and Darwinism. Most of her research focuses on 19th century American women writers, nature study, and the scientific tradition, and according to her website, she is particularly interested in examining the intellectual and aesthetic experience of nature for women in nineteenth-century America and investigating the linguistic, perceptual, and scientific systems that were available to women to describe those experiences.
“I have been engaged in a project on Darwin’s female scientific correspondents, in which investigate women’s participation in formal and informal scientific networks,” she writes.
Listen to this podcast online where Professor Gianquitto (of the Colorado University of Mines) introduces Mary Treat, her work and her correspondence with Charles Darwin.
When asked by this blogger if she was as excited about the news of Kingsolver’s next novel as many other academics and general readers around the country were she replied: ”Absolutely!”