In two parallel narratives, one set in the very-present of Trump and climate catastrophe and the other in the 1870s-ish of Darwin, Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered takes ‘unsheltered’ literally by narrating the crumbling homes of the protagonists in each of these periods. From the collapsing homes the narratives spiral out to explore all the many, many ways the lives and societies of these protagonists are similarly falling apart.
In our present day we witness Wila and Iano struggle to keep up with their (unintentionally comedically) diametrical opposed twenty-something children as all try to make sense of the middle class promise of a better life for your children. The daughter, Tig, a socialist and strident environmentalist stands in for the future-present, trying – ardently trying – to convince those around her of the absolute and irreversible change instigated by, and demanded by, the global climate crisis (cue the parallel to the Darwinian timeline where the evolutionary scientists are trying to persuade those backwards, stubborn deniers of the obvious-ness and logic of evolution. It’s a bit on the nose, in my opinion, particularly the force with which the narrative drives home this parallel – repeated themes aside, there are some explicit speeches designed to make sure we get – really get – that those denying the existential threat of climate change are just as ridiculous as those denying evolution.) The son, Zeke, abandons his child in pursuit of profits. It’s theme made (so) literal. What would you give up for designer clothes? Your first born. Actually. Okay, so Zeke is meant to be the foolish optimist that thinks change can be achieved from within the system, Tig wants to blow the whole thing up, and Wila and Iano try to reconcile their life-long desire for the middle class dream of a solid home and retirement plan with the reality of bankruptcy, contract labour and paying for American healthcare.
19th century narrative is… so similar. Thatcher Greenwood, science teacher and supporter of reason in convincing others of the merits of the Darwinian argument, meets his neighbour Mary Treat, a historically forgotten but totally delightful scientist exploring flora and fauna and all in between. The two try to convince their town of Darwinian thinking in literal staged debates that end in murder and outrage. His house is also – literally and figuratively – falling apart.
With all that is collapsing around them – homes, families, marriages, belief systems – Kingsolver pitches the idea that it is community and connection that will, if not restore the bonds and rebuild the homes, then will offer ‘shelter’ amid the chaos and wreckage. So you may not have a home, a planet, a reliable belief system, but you will have friends and relationships and that will be – could be – enough. It’s a compelling argument (particularly for a Unitarian) and one I would have enjoyed a lot more if it hadn’t been made so… forcefully. The extensive repetition of theme through character, plot, setting, dialogue… just got to be a bit much.
All the same, if you want a book to convince you not to have (more) children, then this is the one.