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21 November 2018

Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver: an exploration of the rift between baby boomers and millennials

Kingsolver manages to make her characters simultaneously believable individuals, and embodiments of a generation.

By Hannah Rosefield

In the US and the UK, a quarter of adults in their late twenties and early thirties are living with their parents, thanks to student debt, low-paying jobs and the cost of housing. In Unsheltered, Barbara Kingsolver brings two baby boomers and their millennial children under one dilapidated roof in order to explore their different attitudes towards an increasingly uncertain future. For good measure, she adds a generation at either end: her protagonist, Willa Knox, finds herself living with her father-in-law and her son’s baby, as well as with her own husband Iano and their adult children.

Willa and Iano are in no position to take on several dependents. Iano, a professor of global politics, has lost his job (the college at which he taught has closed down), leaving them homeless (the college owned their house) as well as financially vulnerable (Willa is a freelance journalist). The novel opens in 2015, with the couple relocating from Virginia to Vineland, New Jersey, where Willa has just inherited a house big enough to accommodate everyone. But it’s falling apart, and without a large sum of money to fix it up, it’ll soon be uninhabitable. The rising medical costs of caring for Willa’s infirm father-in-law are also keeping her up at night. “How could two hardworking people do everything right in life and arrive in their fifties essentially destitute?” she wonders. The beliefs with which she was raised – that hard work and education bring security, that children will have a better life than their parents – now look like collective wishful thinking.

Willa’s story unfolds, in alternating chapters, alongside that of Thatcher Greenwood, a young and ambitious science teacher confronting a different kind of collective wishful thinking. Thatcher moves to Vineland in 1874 to please his pretty, conventional new wife, Rose. (The couple are modelled on the young surgeon Lydgate and his wife Rosamond in George Eliot’s Middlemarch, and are similarly incompatible.) Vineland, a real town, was founded in the 1860s as a utopian community. Its tyrannical leader, Charles Landis, is hostile to anything that challenges his authority or his Christian beliefs, and when it becomes known that Thatcher is a proponent of the theories of Charles Darwin, Landis starts mobilising against him. Thatcher’s home life is no better than his professional one: Rose refuses to believe that his teacher’s salary is insufficient to renovate their crumbling house.

Kingsolver, the author of seven previous novels, is a specialist in delusions. In The Poisonwood Bible (1998), a missionary in the Congo chooses to endanger the lives of his family rather than confront the futility of his mission. Her last novel, Flight Behaviour (2012), depicted an impoverished Appalachian community certain that a mysterious influx of butterflies is an indication of God’s grace rather than of climate change. The 19th-century residents of Vineland in Unsheltered refuse to consider an alternative to the Biblical account of Creation. Willa’s political scientist husband and debt-ridden, Harvard Business School-educated son Zeke are just as blinkered in their conviction that growth is good, while her right-wing father-in-law insists that immigrants are the cause of all America’s troubles.

Thatcher and Willa are both truth-seekers, and each finds a braver and more unconventional person to guide them. For Thatcher, it’s his neighbour Mary Treat, a real-life botanist and correspondent of Charles Darwin. Willa’s guide is her tiny, dreadlocked, manic pixie daughter Tig, a college dropout and Occupy activist. Willa, having always seen her as a failure, gradually realises that Tig, practised at building communities and getting by on what’s available, is perfectly equipped to handle the family’s reduced circumstances. (Tig’s values are roughly those that Kingsolver espouses in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, a memoir of the year in which she and her family ate only locally produced food.)

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With a couple of exceptions, Kingsolver manages to make her characters simultaneously believable individuals and embodiments of a generation or political position. But as the novel nears its cautiously optimistic ending, this technique begins to look like its own kind of delusion. It’s one thing to multiply Thatcher’s happy ending across an entire generation of scientists and intellectuals (we know, after all, that Darwin’s theories will prevail). It’s another to suggest that Tig’s values can save all those who adopt them.

Near the end of Unsheltered, Willa reflects that her daughter and those like her “might be the lucky ones… They ate less and took up less space: the humans of the future”. Two threats in the background of the novel – global warming and the rising popularity of an unnamed but unmistakable Republican presidential nominee – remind us that there are those whose race or location make them vulnerable no matter how enthusiastically they reduce, reuse and recycle.

Kingsolver surely knows this, and perhaps Willa’s bizarrely and uncharacteristically racist attitude towards her son’s new Asian banker girlfriend at the novel’s end is meant to warn us that a return to the land and a focus on community have their dark sides. Even so, it’s hard to escape the feeling that Kingsolver wants us to see her characters as embodying their generation only for as long as it suits her. The alternative is that Unsheltered isn’t so much a call to arms as a consoling fiction. 

Barbara Kingsolver
Faber & Faber, 464pp, £20

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This article appears in the 21 Nov 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The real Brexit crisis