After decades of hard work and sacrifice, Willa Knox has little to show for it. When the magazine she writes for folds and the college where her husband, Iano, is a tenured professor goes broke, they’re forced to relocate from Virginia to Vineland, New Jersey, a former utopian community where she’s inherited a run-down house.
That’s the basis for one of the parallel narratives in Barbara Kingsolver’s new novel, Unsheltered.
As she tries to keep the house from crumbling beneath her family (which includes Iano, their son and his infant daughter, as well as Iano’s curmudgeon dad), Willa starts researching the house’s history, hoping that the local preservation society will help fund renovations. It’s during that research that she’s introduced to Thatcher Greenwood, whose story is told in alternating chapters.
All the way back in the 1870s, Thatcher is a science teacher who’s under fire for including Darwin's theory of evolution in his curriculum. What connects Thatcher to Willa? The house in Vineland (a real town, by the way) where they both live, centuries apart.
The two are also connected by a general sense of disillusionment—Thatcher’s based on his community’s unwillingness to challenge the status quo and Willa’s due to the bleak political climate. (Her part of the story is set in 2016, and includes a political figure known only as the “Bullhorn.” We’ll let you guess who that character is based on.)
As the title lets on, we’re meant to consider the idea of shelter: What makes a home? What breeds security?
Come for the commentary on middle-class disillusionment; stay for the 19th-century Darwin gossip.