“He says anything to please a crowd, exaggerates and oversimplifies. His need for acclaim has compromised his science. Aggassiz was a good geologist in his time but now he behaves as a showman who only cares for the size of crowd he can draw.”
This is just one of a great many contemporary echoes that ring out through Unsheltered, Barbara Kingsolver’s eighth novel. It won’t surprise anyone familiar with Kingsolver’s previous books – or indeed her passion for social justice, as exemplified by the Bellwether Prize, a literary prize she established which is given to ‘literature of social change’ – that she isn’t exactly the biggest fan of Donald Trump. He isn’t named in Unsheltered but he casts a long shadow.
This is the story of Willa Knox and Thatcher Greenwood, the first a struggling freelance journalist (much as Kingsolver herself was at the start of her career), the second a science teacher, separated by the best part of 150 years. We meet Willa and her family in 2016 – husband Iano (pronounced Yano), diminutive daughter Tig (short for Antigone), and son Zeke – as they are faced by twin disasters: first of all, the house the majority of them live in has been condemned (recalling, momentarily, Henning Mankell’s last book, After the Fire, and raising the question: what does a person do when they lose everything, figuratively speaking), and then Zeke’s wife Helene kills herself shortly after giving birth to Aldus, who gradually becomes Dusty (putting the end of a house into rude context and dismissing Mankell’s novel-length dilemma with a shrug: what happens after worlds end?). This is a world in which people can do everything right – and still find themselves in trouble. Willa and her family are bright, no doubt, and yet their struggle is real, it’s the struggle of now, in one sense:
“One percent of the brotherhood has their hands on most of the bread. They own the country, their god is the free market, and most people are so unhorrified they won’t even question the system. If it makes profit, that’s the definition of good. If it grows, you have to stand back and let it. The free market has exactly the same morality as a cancer cell.”
Meanwhile, back in 1871, Thatcher Greenwood faces troubles of his own: his own house is fair rotting at the seams and his family – wife Rose, mother-in-law Aurelia, sister-in-law Poppy – all but put their fingers in their ears about it. Over at the schoolhouse, his boss, a religious sort called Mr Cutler, is busy making his life a misery, refusing to let him take his wards out of the classroom to actually interact with the world, interrupting lessons to firmly knot all talk of scientific investigation to the Good Book, the two of them trading blows until eventually they find themselves on a stage in front of the entire town debating Darwin and Decency. Thankfully Thatcher has allies: first in the shape of a scientist, Mary Treat, a genuine historical figure, who lives across the street and enchants Thatcher with her interests and obsessions with spiders, plants, birds and ants, amongst other things, and her correspondence with the likes of the aforementioned Darwin and his US counterpart Dr Asa Gray; and then, more belatedly, with Carruth, a local newspaperman, and the only person willing to take on Captain Landis, the father of the feast and the man who began Vineland, the community in which Thatcher and his family – and later Willa and her family – live.
Willa learns that Treat may well have lived in her own house and seeks to find out as much as she can in the hope of rescuing her house from dilapidation with grants (resting her hopes on the National Trust, at one point!), as she does so gradually learning of the trouble in which Thatcher eventually found himself (Kingsolver weaving a deft and subtle bit of foreshadowing as we learn vague hints of murder and trials and ignominy). What we have here, separated by vast swathes of time, are good people essentially fighting the good fight despite the might of the world prevailed against them. This is best seen in the conversations that take place between Willa and her daughter as they look after Zeke’s baby or watch over Iano’s ailing (racist) father Nick – where Tig questions all of the truths Willa has built her life on:
“Tig laughed. “You wanted us to be happy. I know you did. Not that self-sufficient but self-sufficient. Good workers, good at relationships. All the same things we want for Dusty. But he needs a different kind of mom. The reward system in his lifetime will be totally different. He’ll have to learn to be happy with what he’s got.”
“To expect nothing, in other words. And get it.”
“He doesn’t get a choice. He got born in the historical moment of no more free lunch. Friends will probably count more than money, because wanting too much stuff is going to be toxic. We didn’t ask for this, it’s just what we got.””
A (real) quote rumbles through the latter half of the book, given by a (then) Presidential candidate, about how he could to all intents and purposes shoot someone on the street and still the people would love him. This ricochets all the way back to Thatcher’s world where a well-connected person does shoot someone and does, ostensibly, get away with it. Plus ça change, you might say. But there is a point being made here, a provocation, just as there was in Sam Byers’ Perfidious Albion. This is the world in which we find ourselves. Do you look at it and shrug and say, well, what could I possibly do? – or do you march boldly out into it and say, no – I can make a difference, in a small way, in a big way. This is the choice of our time. Are you a bystander or are you a participant? Thatcher, at the very least, is a participant, and it may be that he hurts himself as a result, but there is wisdom in the fall, all the same:
“He might sleep in a bed of cactus thorns or a tree under the stars, but he could choose the company he kept and it would not be this fearful, self-interested mob shut up in airless rooms. They would huddle in the artifice of safety, their heaven would collapse. His would be the forthright march through the downfall.”
Any Cop?: We’ve read reviews that haven’t rated Unsheltered as highly as we do (we think they’re wrong, of course) – for us, this is a novel (like Perfidious Albion, we’ll keep saying it) that would have helped comprise a much better Booker shortlist this year.