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When I saw Barbara Kingsolver’s latest work on the selection list, I grabbed it like a kid stealing the biggest cookie from the plate. I have been a fan of hers since I read THE POISONWOOD BIBLE. In my OCD way, I worked myself backward and forward through her backlist --- liking some titles more than others --- but was starting to wonder if I’d live long enough for a follow-up to 2012’s FLIGHT BEHAVIOR, or if there was even going to be one. Happily there is; it bears the enigmatic title UNSHELTERED, and it’s well worth the wait.

Kingsolver doesn’t do sequels. She creates whole new worlds each time she sets herself to the task. So much has happened in the past six years that the world we once knew and took for granted --- personal civility, informed thought, the good old American way of creating a better world for our children --- no longer seems to exist. Corporate pension plans, job stability, 401ks, a good education for our kids, dependable health plans, a retirement fund, a sound roof over our heads, and a solid foundation beneath our feet seemed to be a present and a future to rely upon for most middle- and working-class Americans. Regrettably for many, they have been whisked into oblivion or threatened by politicians whose single goal in life is self-preservation, with no thought for their constituency or the future of our nation.

"...a beautifully written novel by an author whose talent for metaphor and wit provides an entertaining and informative read that will please her fans and perhaps attract new ones."

The novel’s setting is the small town of Vineland, New Jersey, built in the mid-1880s by a wealthy developer, Captain Landis. He snapped up 30,000 acres of wilderness, populated by runaway slaves and Indians; cleared the forests to lay out the town; and named streets and buildings after himself and the fruit trees he hoped to have planted by the incoming Italian immigrants. His dream was to create a utopian community, which was popular at the time. He would use the immigrant labor to build grand Victorian houses, constructed with poor foundations, cheap roofing and siding. And come they did. The Civil War was over, and people were eager to begin their lives anew. It was during the times of Charles Darwin and modern thought that clashed against orthodoxy.

UNSHELTERED opens in the current day as Iano and Willa Knox bring Iano’s senile Greek nationalist father with them to relocate to one of the utopian Victorians, a house inherited by Willa from her aunt. Iano is a middle-aged professor who has just lost his tenure, and their college provided housing when the school closed its doors. He has found a new teaching position at a nearby community college. Willa was a writer at a magazine that has shut down simultaneously, and she hopes to enter the world of freelance or blogging. They are joined by their globe-wandering daughter Tig, returned to the roost after several years in Cuba. Her brother, Zeke, soon follows with his newborn son after the tragic loss of his wife.

We then are introduced to the house’s original owners, Thatcher and Rose Greenwood, and their family in 1880s Vineland. Thatcher teaches science at the local high school, and Rose and her social-climbing mother do what ladies did during that period. Their next-door neighbor is an eccentric scientist named Mary Treat, who regularly corresponds with Darwin, both of whom are authentic characters in the novel.

Kingsolver skillfully moves between centuries in alternating chapters, building the characters and stories smoothly through a literary road map. We are drawn into the fascinating lives and historical times in what seems like near-prescience. Events occurring in our rapid-fire, topsy-turvy world of today’s ever-breaking news cycle that numbs our minds and stretches our credulity makes the headliners of today seem even more fictitious than the fictional characters.

Is UNSHELTERED a political discourse? Not at all; it is a beautifully written novel by an author whose talent for metaphor and wit provides an entertaining and informative read that will please her fans and perhaps attract new ones. I was originally puzzled by the title, but by book’s end the meaning becomes clear. One of the characters, facing the final loss of his home and reputation, comes to the revelation that “without shelter, we stand in daylight.”

Reviewed by Roz Shea on October 19, 2018

by Barbara Kingsolver

  • Publication Date: October 15, 2019
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 496 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial
  • ISBN-10: 0062684736
  • ISBN-13: 9780062684738