Shelter from the storm: ‘Unsheltered’ probes human resilience
The rural Virginia author of ”Flight Behavior” and “The Poisonwood Bible” is back this year with her 15th novel, “Unsheltered.” It’s a timely novel that interweaves both the past and the present to explore our human capacity for resiliency and compassion in times of great upheaval. Like the Trumpian times we are living in today, not just in America but worldwide. Set for an October 16 release in the USA, and a October 18 release two days later in Britain, the new Kingsolver novel will likely be translated into over a dozen languages during the next five years. This is a book for our times.
The story? It comes in at around 500 pages, so get ready, that’s a lot of page turning.
There’s a main character named Willa Knox who has always prided herself on being the embodiment of responsibility for her family. Which is why it’s so unnerving that she’s arrived at middle age with nothing to show for her hard work and dedication but a stack of unpaid bills and an inherited brick home in Vineland, New Jersey, that is literally falling apart.
Add to that, the magazine where she worked has folded, and the university where her husband had tenure has closed. The dilapidated house is also home to her ailing and cantankerous father-in-law and her two grown children: her stubborn, free-spirited daughter and her dutiful debt-ridden, ivy educated son who has arrived with his unplanned baby in the wake of a life-shattering development.
In an act of desperation, Willa begins to investigate the architectural and construction history of her home, hoping that the local Vineland historical preservation society might take an interest and provide funding for its direly needed repairs. Through her research into Vineland’s past and its creation as an American radical, progressive Utopian community, she discovers a kindred spirit from the 1880s, a second main character named Thatcher Greenwood.
A science teacher with a lifelong passion for honest investigation, Thatcher finds himself under siege in his community for telling the truth: his employer forbids him to speak of the exciting new theory recently published by Charles Darwin. Thatcher’s friendships with a brilliant woman scientist and a renegade newspaper editor draw him into a vendetta with the town’s most powerful men. At home, his new wife and status-conscious mother-in-law bristle at the risk of scandal, and dismiss his financial worries and the news that their elegant house is structurally unsound.
Brilliantly executed and compulsively readable, ”Unsheltered” is the story of two families, in two different centuries, who live in a house at the corner of Sixth Avenue and Plum Street, as they navigate the challenges of surviving a world in the throes of major cultural shifts: one in 2016 and the other in 1871. In this mesmerizing story — told in alternating chapters — Willa and Thatcher come to realize that though the future is uncertain, even unnerving, shelter can be found in the bonds of kindred spirits — whether family or friends — and in the strength of the human spirit.
”When Kingsolver began writing the novel more than two years ago, an editor in New York remarked, after seeing some early chapters, that she [the editor] did not think the world was so dark. Now, Kingsolver says, the novel seems alarmingly relevant,” Melanie Kembrey reported for the Sydney Morning Herald in Australia in a long-distance phone interview with the rural Virginia author.
“It’s funny that I have this crazy habit of publishing right at the moment before a new movement kind of crashes, or breaks open,” Kingsolver said over the phone.
“I think of myself as a surfer. I’m not making the wave, I’m just riding it,” the celebrated novelist said.
As for Vineland, a real city in a real New Jersey — “South Jersey” — its setting in the novel is cause for celebration among residents of the town who hope the book will put Vineland, past and present, on the national and international maps,
When recently informed that a new American novel will focus on Vineland, Patricia A. Martinelli who is the curator of the Vineland Historical Museum, 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.”
According to local newspaper editor Joan Kostiuk, three years ago, in 2015, Kingsolver visited Vineland at the local library’s invitation because she was doing research on what was then a new novel-in-progress that was going to be set in the area.
Now the novel is published, the release date is set, and readers around the world are set for a real treat.