Unsheltered

by Barbara Kingsolver


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.

Vineland 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.

Nineteenth-century 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)

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Other novels that move between past and present:

The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff (2008), about a present-day woman, descended from a famous author, who returns to her hometown in upstate New York and learns about her ancestors going back to the town's founding in the late eighteenth century. See review or more info at Powell's Books.

The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton (2008), about a little girl abandoned on a ship to Australia in 1913 and her efforts, after she is grown, to unravel the mystery of her origins in Cornwall. See review or more info.

Lady of Hay by Barbara Erskine (1986), about a modern woman who under hypnotic past-life regression, remembers a life as Matilda de Braose in the medieval England of King John's time. See review or more info.


Nonfiction about Vineland:

Before the Wind: Charles K. Landis and Early Vineland by Vince Farinaccio (2018). More info

Images of America: Vineland by Vineland Historical and Antiquarian Society (2011). More info

Home Studies in Nature by Mary Treat (1885). More info


Online:

The Founding of Vineland a 1994 article by Louis Russo

Mary Treat a 2016 article by Miranda Garno Nesler

Back to Novels of Nineteenth-Century America

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