Reviewed by Margaret Tomlinson
Unsheltered opens with the present-day
story of a financially struggling family who move into an old house in
Vineland, New Jersey. The house, inherited from an aunt, seems like a lucky
break until they discover it's in serious disrepair - just as their family is. In chapter two, the story
moves backward in time to a different family living on the same property in the 1870s.
Their stories echo; for example, both husbands are teachers who can't
earn enough to meet their families' needs.
is a real place. Charles Landis founded this planned community in the 1860s to
fulfill his dream to create an "... abode of happy, prosperous and
beautiful homes; establish the best of schools; also manufactories, and
different industries and churches of different denominations; in short, all things
essential to the prosperity of mankind..., and the moral protection of people,
that the home of every man of reasonable industry might be made a sanctuary of
happiness, and an abode of beauty, no matter how poor he might be.'' It was an admirable ideal, if he could have lived up to it.
naturalist Mary Treat was also real. She lived in Vineland, studied the flora
and fauna of the Pine Barrens and corresponded with Charles Darwin and other
noted scientific men. Kingsolver weaves her into the story of the two families,
portraying her with as distinctive and sympathetic a personality as any of the
fictional characters. The novel also sounds echoes between our present in post-2016
America and the past history of Vineland; it doesn't have to name names for readers
to get the point.
Unsheltered is one of those rare novels in which the stories of present and past are so closely connected and each so absorbing that it's never disappointing to move from one time period to the other. The characters and their surroundings feel tangibly real, their lives as tense and troubling as lives in fraught times inevitably are. The ending offers hope, something we can all use. (2018, 464 pages including an Acknowledgments section distinguishing fact from fiction)More about Unsheltered at Powell's Books or The Book Depository