“Mary Treat. How many women has God made like you?” Thatcher Greenwood dares to ask, allowing himself to walk into the light, to become unsheltered.
And, thus it is, with Barbara Kingsolver’s latest tour de force as in much of her writing, a revelatory examination of life with shadows and shelter firmly pushed away.
Moving between narratives within the 19th and 21st centuries, “Unsheltered” is the story of two families who reside in Vineland, Pennsylvania. Facing many of the same trials, the families are challenged to find appropriate housing, to face the death of beloved family members, to understand that the way of the world as they believed it to be is fading away, and to train themselves to look up, to look forward, to find the possibility of the new world order of their futures.
Both narratives carry the stories of women who have been crippled by societal mores, yet are dauntlessly working to find their way into the light and into their own truths. Willa Knox, former journalist and mother of two, finds herself in the uncharted territory of mid-life with no job, a husband whose tenure as a professor has abruptly ended, an ailing father-in-law, children whose mid-20s problems seem insurmountable, and the inheritor of a dilapidated house in residential Vineland. Medicaid, food stamps and a house of squalor were certainly not part of Willa’s vision of her future, yet a reality she has to face.
“How could two hardworking people do everything right in life and arrive in their fifties essentially destitute? They were a new class of educated nomads, raising kids with no real answer to the question of where they’d grown up.” With questions and reflections like these, Willa begins her journey of life in Pennsylvania, dividing her time between doctor’s appointments for her father-in-law and her son’s newborn.
Meanwhile, readers meet Thatcher Greenwood and Mary Treat, 19th century residents of Vineland whose chance meeting as neighbors proves life-changing. Married hastily to a much younger woman, Thatcher is challenged to provide shelter for his widowed mother-in-law and his wife’s sister. With passion he approaches his new post as the science teacher of a local school, yet is quickly smothered in the schoolmaster’s absolute derision of the new science of Darwin and his blasphemous diatribe in regard to evolution. Torn between his own beliefs and maintaining his job, Thatcher struggles to navigate the world of his in-laws and the world of his mind.
Within walking distance of Thatcher’s new home resides Mary Treat, a scientist in her own right who frequently corresponds with Charles Darwin and Asa Gray, but is better known in the community as a woman whose husband left her for a younger, more glamorous replacement.
Eccentric for her time or any era, Mary Treat is wholly herself, undeterred by society’s opinions. Her work as a biologist is her world. She encourages Thatcher: “Your pupils depend on it, Thatcher. Their little families have come here looking for safety, but they will go on laboring under old authorities until their heaven collapses. Your charge is to lead them out of doors. Teach them to see for themselves, and not to fear it … To stand in the clear light of day unsheltered.”
Juggling the worlds of two centuries, with characters who face many of the same obstacles, Kingsolver creates a portal into the past, present and future. With mirror-like recognition, readers see who we were and how that inevitably informs who we are and will be.
Readers will find themselves caught up in these intricate worlds, cheering for Thatcher, in awe of Mary, and willing Willa to take the advice of Tig, her spirited daughter: “I’m saying when God slams a door on you it’s probably a shitstorm. You’re going to end up in rubble. But it’s okay because without all that crap overhead, you’re standing in the daylight … What you have to do is look for blue sky.” Likewise, Kingsolver eloquently urges each of us to step into the light, to become unsheltered, to break free.