Review: Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver

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From Goodreads: The New York Times bestselling author of Flight Behavior, The Lacuna, and The Poisonwood Bible and recipient of numerous literary awards—including the National Humanities Medal, the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, and the Orange Prize—returns with a timely novel that interweaves past and present to explore the human capacity for resiliency and compassion in times of great upheaval.

Willa Knox has always prided herself on being the embodiment of responsibility for her family. Which is why it’s so unnerving that she’s arrived at middle age with nothing to show for her hard work and dedication but a stack of unpaid bills and an inherited brick home in Vineland, New Jersey, that is literally falling apart. The magazine where she worked has folded, and the college where her husband had tenure has closed. The dilapidated house is also home to her ailing and cantankerous Greek father-in-law and her two grown children: her stubborn, free-spirited daughter, Tig, and her dutiful debt-ridden, ivy educated son, Zeke, who has arrived with his unplanned baby in the wake of a life-shattering development.

In an act of desperation, Willa begins to investigate the history of her home, hoping that the local historical preservation society might take an interest and provide funding for its direly needed repairs. Through her research into Vineland’s past and its creation as a Utopian community, she discovers a kindred spirit from the 1880s, Thatcher Greenwood.

A science teacher with a lifelong passion for honest investigation, Thatcher finds himself under siege in his community for telling the truth: his employer forbids him to speak of the exciting new theory recently published by Charles Darwin. Thatcher’s friendships with a brilliant woman scientist and a renegade newspaper editor draw him into a vendetta with the town’s most powerful men. At home, his new wife and status-conscious mother-in-law bristle at the risk of scandal, and dismiss his financial worries and the news that their elegant house is structurally unsound.

Brilliantly executed and compulsively listenable, Unsheltered is the story of two families, in two centuries, who live at the corner of Sixth and Plum, as they navigate the challenges of surviving a world in the throes of major cultural shifts. In this mesmerizing story told in alternating chapters, Willa and Thatcher come to realize that though the future is uncertain, even unnerving, shelter can be found in the bonds of kindred—whether family or friends—and in the strength of the human spirit.

Unsheltered was a complicated book for me to read. Although Barbara Kingsolver tells a good story, I actually usually avoid her books as the two I have read previously (The Beantrees and The Poisonwood Bible) were great…until the conclusion. For me, bad endings are a deal breaker for me. I’d actually rather read a so-so book with an awesome ending then a great book with a terrible ending.
So until I heard the setting of Unsheltered, I had no intentions of reading it. In fact, the news of Unshelter’s release hadn’t even blipped on my radar until I saw it being discussed on my hometown’s Facebook group. Unsheltered takes place in Vineland, NJ-the very place I was born and spent the first 30 years of my life in. It was the first time I had ever heard of a book being set there.
So I decided to read Unsheltered, despite knowing that there was a good chance it was going to piss me off.
And well. I can’t say that I loved it, but at the same time I liked it more than I thought I would. Although I had lived in Vineland for 30 years, my knowledge of the town history was pretty much non existant. I had heard of Charles Landis, the founder of Vineland, but I didn’t know anything about him. I enjoyed the chapters that were set in the 1800’s, as I did not have a preconceived vision of what Vineland looked like, what the people were like. I could just read the story as a story.
The modern chapters were more challenging. There were parts of Vineland that Kingsolver got right, the neighborhood that Willa’s family lived in was accurate. The next door neighbors were particularly well developed and I really did feel like they were people I had actually known. But then there were details that were so glaringly obvious to a native that it was a struggle. For just one example, Kingsolver mentions the devistation of Hurricane Sandy often but in reality, Vineland wasn’t affected by the hurricane. A few months prior to Sandy, Vineland suffered devestation from another storm (which sadly claimed the lives of two young children who were camping), and because of the damage from the storm-Vineland was relatively unscathed by Sandy. A much smaller inaccuracy, but one that annoyed me was mention of Atlantic City Electric, where, in reality, Vineland has their own Electric Plant. If you live in Vineland, especially the neighborhood that Willa and her family did, you get electric locally.
Overall though, I enjoyed both stories and it certainly sparked my interest in learning more about the history of my hometown.
“The thing is, Mom, the secret of happiness is low expectations. That’s a good reminder, right there. If you didn’t lose your husband and kids all in one year, smile! You’re ahead of the game.”
― Barbara Kingsolver, Unsheltered

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