In her newest novel, Unsheltered, Barbara Kingsolver uses fiction to examine how our current generation of adults has become so inured to capitalism that we’ve unknowingly fostered climate change. By examining 2 eras of families living in the same house, she asks us to consider how survival-of-the-fittest works both in the natural and social worlds to privilege some individuals and to suffocate others. Often dark and frequently remarkable, the book draw upon premises from Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate and Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species to question how what seems natural and right can lead to systemic damage — to our belief systems, social institutions, and the planet.
Willa Knox has done everything a woman born during the third wave of feminism should do: she’s worked as a successful magazine journalist, been a loving spouse, and cared for family members from kids to pets to parents. But, as the 2016 US presidential election looms in the background, she is forced to examine how her lifelong good intentions haven’t really been enough to provide stability for her family — or herself.
In an alternate time period 140 years earlier — the book switches past to present, chapter to chapter — Thatcher Greenwood is a science teacher living in an utopian community where God’s will is the only natural law and his new wife’s status-rich family requires his financial support. They are destitute.
In both time periods, the southern New Jersey house they inhabit (their physical shelter) is crumbling around them — and, with it, their sense of identity and social belongingness. Unsheltered offers us a view of our own lives in the 21st century that is startlingly honest and forces us to question the decisions we have been taught and have passed down to the next generation. And though they are living in two separate eras, both Willa and Thatcher journey through a confusing landscape in which events contradict their own theories about survival.
To Be Physically Unsheltered
In an interview about Unsheltered, Kingsolver explained her rationale for juxtaposing 2 time periods and an alternating cast of characters.
“I knew that I wanted to invent two sets of characters living in two different times, one would be contemporary, right now as I was writing the novel, facing the crises that we are looking at in this moment—on so many different levels, the social, the economic, and the environmental. And I wanted to contrast that crisis with an earlier time when people were dealing with a complete disorientation of their notion of what it meant to be a human being on earth.”
According to Maslow, we can never become self-actualized until we have basic food and shelter. To be “sheltered” means securing, at a minimum, temporary protection from bad weather or danger. With the roof collapsing in on the families in both eras, the house in Unsheltered is little more than a shell that seems barely able to harbor those who might otherwise be homeless.
After son Zeke’s girlfriend commits suicide, he is unable to care for their infant in the mean streets of Boston, so the inherited New Jersey family home — even with all its failings — becomes a sanctuary. Boston appears in the 19th century narrative, too, as it is where Thatcher met his social-climber wife, Rose, although she shudders at the memory of the “wild and uncultured” city that offered him a profession and their financial stability.
Darwin’s Natural Selection Revisited
What could be a more ideal environment for a novel’s setting than the utopian town of Vineland and the nearby southernmost tip of New Jersey, with its Pine Barren wilderness brimming with cedars, bogs, and logs in deep decay?
The former is an Eden where its founder, Captain Landis, can “rule by strict regulation” and “only cares that he is emperor of the realm” (p. 195). Vineland is so idyllic that “every bushel spills over with harvest! Every farmer is solvent and all the bricklayers well paid.” Carruth, publisher of the oppositional newspaper The Independent reveals that “half these men believe it themselves, and wonder why they’re still going hungry”(p. 259). The latter setting, visited by the Unsheltered characters in both time periods, offers “sandy paths into the woods where the solitude and darkness and dire blood-red color of the creeks” (p. 346) reflect the characters’ unsettled moods.
Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life is a work of scientific literature by Charles Darwin (1859) which is considered to be the foundation of evolutionary biology. Darwin’s book introduced the scientific theory that populations evolve over the course of generations through a process of natural selection. He presented a body of evidence that the diversity of life arose by common descent, and natural selection acts to preserve and accumulate minor advantageous genetic mutations.
In Unsheltered, Kingsolver explores the principles of Darwinism through Thatcher’s neighbor, Mary Treat, an actual 19th century biologist whose home became a laboratory and who conducted experiments on the natural landscape that offered independent evidence for Darwin’s theories. Mary studies the Venus flytrap, ants, ferns, and other inhabitants of the natural world to affirm Darwin’s premise that “preservation, during the battle for life, of varieties which possess any advantage in structure, constitution, or instinct” must take precedence over weaker, less viable organisms. “Truth is not ours to find within,” Mary states, “but to search out. We study the known world in order to recognize the remarkable” (p. 151).
Our Beliefs Can Be Our Undoing
And in the same way that heritable traits enable organisms to better adapt to their environment compared with other members of their species, so, too, do the characters in Unsheltered seem to falter and wilt when forces around them exhibit robust Darwinian structural, physiological, and behavioral adaptations.
Thatcher, who has risen from a spare life of hunger and isolation to medical assistant and, most recently, educator, is convinced of his pupils’ “nascent minds once they were properly introduced to the natural sciences.” Quickly, though, job and its ties to a secure home life dissipate when he finds that his career is dependent upon succumbing to a faith-based interpretation of science, which he cannot do. “Data,” the principal exclaims, “cannot enlighten us to the origin of things.”
And, so, the protagonists are “unsheltered” beyond the physical. Everything they have learned to believe seems at odds with the reality around them. “It’s like the rules don’t apply anymore,” Willa says. “Or we learned one set, and then somebody switched them out.”
Characters in both time periods realize that living up to personal principles can alienate those who hold power. Daughter Tig (from Sophocles’ Antigone, who starved to death in a cave) is an avowed Marxist whose happiest times were as an expatriate in Cuba. She has a stronger relationship with her Puerto Rican neighbors and racist grandfather than her own mother, as she speaks her mind and challenges hegemonic beliefs about consumption and what it means to nurture in the 21st century.
And, when Thatcher debates the school principal in a type of Chautauqua forum, Captain Landis, the town’s founding father, reframes the give-and-take to hide worker oppression that, if acknowledged, might reveal the dark shadows within their prim and pristine community.
Unfettered Capitalism is Burnin’ Down the House
Iano, Willa’s first generation Greek-American husband, has acquiesced to the expectations of academia, only to have his tenure and pension evaporate with the college’s bankruptcy. He has a PhD in global politics, son Zeke is an economist having an existential crisis over his more than $100,000 in student loans, yet neither seem concerned with “where is the cash that once there was?” (p. 7). Although he yearns for a return to the type of labor force to which Trump appealed during his presidential campaign, Iano’s father Nick has no health insurance when his diabetes escalates into amputation, stroke, and medical emergency, so the family secretly signs him up for the Affordable Care Act.
In the Acknowledgments section of the book, Kingsolver nods to Naomi Klein, whose book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, offered guidance to Kingsolver as she was writing. In what the New York Times describes as a “book of such ambition and consequence,” Klein chronicles how neoliberalism promotes a high-consumption, carbon-hungry system. “Any attempt to rise to the climate challenge will be fruitless unless it is understood as part of a much broader battle of worldviews,” Klein writes. “Our economic system and our planetary system are now at war… So my mind keeps coming back to the question: what is wrong with us? What is really preventing us from putting out the fire that is threatening to burn down our collective house?”
Unsheltered, too, poses the same type of questions. No longer does the American Dream suffice — meritocracies have been shuttered in Vineland, that emblem of rugged individualism built upon “thirty thousand acres and nobody but Indians and runaway slaves” (p. 5). When daughter Tig challenges her family to consider the economic principle of “stimulate” as little more than “a synonym for stealing from the future” (p. 70), we can hear Klein’s words within her own: “Only one of these sets of rules can be changed, and it’s not the laws of nature.”
Indeed, Thatcher’s wife and mother-in-law implore him not to support the town’s oppositional newspaper, as they conclude, “It causes confusion about everything, and encourages shadows of doubt.” When Thatcher tries to refute their privileged position by asking, “Is there no such thing as a peace that deserves to be broken?” he is met with the silence of soup spoons quietly clicking against bone china. This is what Klein refers to as the:
“deep fear that if the free market system really has set in motion physical and chemical processes that, if allowed to continue unchecked, threaten large parts of humanity at an existential level, then their entire crusade to morally redeem capitalism has been for naught…
And that is what is behind the abrupt rise in climate change denial among hardcore conservatives: they have come to understand that as soon as they admit that climate change is real, they will lose the central ideological battle of our time—whether we need to plan and manage our societies to reflect our goals and values, or whether that task can be left to the magic of the market.”
Klein states that the swiftly warming planet “is a civilizational wake-up call.” She argues that capitalism, that “reigning ideology for the entire period we have been struggling to find a way out of this crisis,” is “extremely threatening to an elite minority that has a stranglehold over our economy, our political process, and most of our major media outlets.”
Carruth, the publisher who will be murdered by Landis, nods thoughtfully, expressing Kingsolver’s agreement with Klein. “A delicate business, telling the truth.”
“New, Slightly Feral Tribe”
In Unsheltered, when baby Dusty is hungry, Tig cooks delicious homemade baby food. She puts cloth diapers and a wardrobe of lightly used clothes on him. She designs handmade birthday cards and hates to throw away her grandfather’s used syringes. She reminisces about Cuba, where an upscale restaurant served its meals on 50-year-old china. Tig challenges her mother to acknowledge that, “when everybody around you thinks the same way, you can’t even see what you’re believing in” (p. 410). She is a symbol of Klein’s demand for collective action that “reigns in of the market forces that are largely responsible for creating and deepening the crisis.” Tig is breaking the consumptive “throes of addiction” that Klein indicates have created climate change.
And Kingsolver seems to have come to personal terms with her and her generations’ negligence of the planet through excessive consumption. As Willa looks at her daughter, confounded by her recycling, repurposing. and stitching, she muses, “From what planet came this new, slightly feral tribe of fixers, makers, and barterers, she had no idea” (p. 392). But Willa does understand that, although they may be incomprehensible to their elders, it may be this self-sufficient and sustainable-conscious generation who can save the planet.
Unsheltered has no real epiphanies to end the book (no spoiler alert here, folks). But, rather than offer us answers, Kingsolver peels back the layers of indulgence and self-lies that we’ve been repeating about the state of our western world.
By offering the counterpoint of what it means to be civilized as set against the maze of woodland trails, she beckons us to reach out to the green of nature over our constant search for the green of money and acquisition. The founder of the Pen/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction, Kingsolver has progressive instincts that implore us to look within, for self-reflection will be the only mechanism for the Baby Boomer generation to change its ways.
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