Unsheltered (Kingsolver)

Unsheltered 
Barbara Kingsolver, 2018
HarperCollins
480 pp.
ISBN-13:
9780062684561


Summary
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 readable, 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. (From the publisher.)



Author Bio
Birth—April 8, 1955
Where—Annapolis, Maryland, USA
Education—B.A., DePauw University; M.S., University of Arizona
Awards—Orange Prize
Currently—lives on a farm in Virginia


Barbara Kingsolver was born on April 8, 1955. She grew up "in the middle of an alfalfa field," in the part of eastern Kentucky that lies between the opulent horse farms and the impoverished coal fields. While her family has deep roots in the region, she never imagined staying there herself. "The options were limited—grow up to be a farmer or a farmer's wife."

Kingsolver has always been a storyteller: "I used to beg my mother to let me tell her a bedtime story." As a child, she wrote stories and essays and, beginning at the age of eight, kept a journal religiously. Still, it never occurred to Kingsolver that she could become a professional writer. Growing up in a rural place, where work centered mainly on survival, writing didn't seem to be a practical career choice. Besides, the writers she read, she once explained, "were mostly old, dead men. It was inconceivable that I might grow up to be one of those myself..."

Kingsolver left Kentucky to attend DePauw University in Indiana, where she majored in biology. She also took one creative writing course, and became active in the last anti-Vietnam War protests. After graduating in 1977, Kingsolver lived and worked in widely scattered places. In the early eighties, she pursued graduate studies in biology and ecology at the University of Arizona in Tucson, where she received a Masters of Science degree. She also enrolled in a writing class taught by author Francine Prose, whose work Kingsolver admires.

Kingsolver's fiction is rich with the language and imagery of her native Kentucky. But when she first left home, she says, "I lost my accent.... [P]eople made terrible fun of me for the way I used to talk, so I gave it up slowly and became something else." During her years in school and two years spent living in Greece and France she supported herself in a variety of jobs: as an archaeologist, copy editor, X-ray technician, house cleaner, biological researcher and translator of medical documents.

After graduate school, a position as a science writer for the University of Arizona soon led her into feature writing for journals and newspapers. Her numerous articles have appeared in a variety of publications, including The Nation, the New York Times, and Smithsonian, and many of them are included in the collection, High Tide in Tucson: Essays from Now or Never. In 1986 she won an Arizona Press Club award for outstanding feature writing, and in 1995, after the publication of High Tide in Tucson, Kingsolver was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Letters from her alma mater, DePauw University.

Writing
Kingsolver credits her careers in scientific writing and journalism with instilling in her a writer's discipline and broadening her "fictional possibilities." Describing herself as a shy person who would generally prefer to stay at home with her computer, she explains that "journalism forces me to meet and talk with people I would never run across otherwise."

From 1985 through 1987, Kingsolver was a freelance journalist by day, but she was writing fiction by night. Married to a chemist in 1985, she suffered from insomnia after becoming pregnant the following year. Instead of following her doctor's recommendation to scrub the bathroom tiles with a toothbrush, Kingsolver sat in a closet and began to write The Bean Trees, a novel about a young woman who leaves rural Kentucky (accent intact) and finds herself living in urban Tucson.

The Bean Trees, originally published in 1988 and reissued in a special ten-year anniversary edition in 1998, was enthusiastically received by critics. But, perhaps more important to Kingsolver, the novel was read with delight and, even, passion by ordinary readers. "A novel can educate to some extent," she told Publishers Weekly. "But first, a novel has to entertain—that's the contract with the reader: you give me ten hours and I'll give you a reason to turn every page. I have a commitment to accessiblity. I believe in plot. I want an English professor to understand the symbolism while at the same time I want the people I grew up with—who may not often read anything but the Sears catalogue—to read my books."

For Kingsolver, writing is a form of political activism. When she was in her twenties she discovered Doris Lessing. "I read the Children of Violence novels and began to understand how a person could write about the problems of the world in a compelling and beautiful way. And it seemed to me that was the most important thing I could ever do, if I could ever do that."

The Bean Trees was followed by the collection, Homeland and Other Stories (1989), the novels Animal Dreams (1990), and Pigs in Heaven (1993), and the bestselling High Tide in Tucson: Essays from Now and Never (1995). Kingsolver has also published a collection of poetry, Another America: Otra America (Seal Press, 1992, 1998), and a nonfiction book, Holding the Line: Women in the Great Arizona Mine Strike of l983 (ILR Press/Cornell University Press, 1989, 1996). The Poisonwood Bible (1998) earned accolades at home and abroad, and was an Oprah's Book Club selection.

Barbara's Prodigal Summer (2000), is a novel set in a rural farming community in southern Appalachia. Small Wonder, April 2002, presents 23 wonderfully articulate essays. Here Barbara raises her voice in praise of nature, family, literature, and the joys of everyday life while examining the genesis of war, violence, and poverty in our world.

Two additional books became best sellers. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle came in 2007, again to great acclaim. Non-fiction, the book recounts a year in the life of Kingsolver's family as they grew all their own food. The Lacuna, published two years later, is a fictional account of historical events in Mexico during the 1930, and moving into the U.S. during the McCarthy era of the 1950's.

Extras
• Barbara Kingsolver lives in Southern Applachia with her husband Steven Hopp, and her two daughters, Camille from a previous marriage, and Lily, who was born in 1996. When not writing or spending time with her family, Barbara gardens, cooks, hikes, and works as an environmental activist and human-rights advocate.

• Given that Barbara Kingsolver's work covers the psychic and geographical territories that she knows firsthand, readers often assume that her work is autobiographical. "There are little things that people who know me might recognize in my novels," she acknowledges. "But my work is not about me."

• "If you want a slice of life, look out the window. An artist has to look out that window, isolate one or two suggestive things, and embroider them together with poetry and fabrication, to create a revelation. If we can't, as artists, improve on real life, we should put down our pencils and go bake bread." (Adapted from Barnes & Noble.)



Book Reviews
Kingsolver has long written socially, politically and environmentally alert novels that engage with the wider world and its complications and vulnerabilities, all the while rendering the specific, smaller worlds of her characters humane and resonant.… The novel alternates between the 21st- and 19th-century stories, using the last words of one chapter as the title of the next one.… A dual narrative needs to be not only well choreographed, but also, more important, necessary. Kingsolver’s dual narrative works beautifully here.
Meg Wolitzer - New York Times Book Review


(Starred review) Kingsolver's meticulously observed, elegantly structured novel unites social commentary with gripping storytelling.… Containing both a rich story and a provocative depiction of times that shake the shelter of familiar beliefs, this novel shows Kingsolver at the top of her game.
Publishers Weekly


(Starred review) Exceptionally involving and rewarding…There is much to delight in and think about while reveling in Kingsolver’s vital characters, quicksilver dialogue, intimate moments, dramatic showdowns, and lushly realized milieus.… An enveloping, tender, witty, and awakening novel of love and trauma, family and survival, moral dilemmas and intellectual challenges.
Booklist


(Starred review) Alternating between two centuries,… Kingsolver gives readers plenty to think about. Her warm humanism coupled with an unabashed point of view make her a fine 21st-century exponent of the honorable tradition of politically engaged fiction.
Kirkus Reviews



Discussion Questions
1. What do the living spaces in their various conditions throughout the novel suggest about the people living in them? Figuratively speaking, which foundations turn out to be solid, or precarious?

2. Mary Treat tells Thatcher that to be unsheltered is to live in daylight. What does she mean? What kinds of shelter do these characters crave, in their different centuries? How might sheltered lives—or the craving for them—become a hindrance?

3. Which of the many challenges confronting Willa are hers alone to bear, and why? What do you see as the foundation of her successful relationship with Iano? How has marriage changed, or not changed, since the time of Rose and Thatcher?

4. Why do you think happy marriages so rarely appear in fiction?

5. In what ways, if any, do you find Nick’s bigotry and anger comprehensible? What accounts for Tig’s patience with him, despite their differences? How do the family’s conflicts relate to the polarization of present times? What’s suggested by Willa’s and Nick’s argument taking place on the Walt Whitman Bridge?

6. How are Mary Treat’s eccentricities related to her strengths? In what ways is her friendship especially valuable to Thatcher? What is the role of the scientist in times of social upheaval?

7. What are some of the"old mythologies" discussed by Mary and Thatcher, to which people cling for comfort even when they’re no longer true? Are any of these still popular in the modern era?

8. Mary tells Thatcher she is "astonished at how little most people can manage to see." Specifically, which realities in her century, and ours, do people find it difficult to see? What are the costs? Is it possible to view ourselves objectively in our own time?

9. When Thatcher sees the world "divided in two camps, the investigators and the sweeteners," what is he observing? Which of the novel’s characters are the former, and which are the latter? Where would you place yourself?

10. Consider the creative names and botanical character identities throughout the novel. What do they reveal? How have the various characters’ education or backgrounds shaped their perspectives? Why do you think a select few of them are able to think outside of what Tig calls "the cardboard box," or Mary, "the pumpkin shell?"

11. What family dynamics might have made Tig and Zeke so different and combative, while Jorge and his siblings are close and supportive?

12. How do the characters in two centuries variously understand and connect with the natural world? When Willa’s phone causes "thousands of birds [to burst] from their tree skyward like a house going up in smoke," what does this potent image suggest? What about the ants that seem to inhabit the neighborhood outside the boundaries of time?

13. When Willa complains that "the rules don’t apply anymore," what does she mean? How are Zeke and Tig preparing differently for a future in which they will have less than their parents? Did the novel move you to any new insights about generational difference?

14. How does the powerful experience of loss affect this novel’s characters, at personal and societal levels? Is the nature of grief constant across human experience? How might "the loss of what they know" influence people’s political behavior?

15. The novel’s epigraph quotes a Wallace Stevens poem,"The Well Dressed Man with a Beard." How does the epigraph relate to the novel, and how might Christopher Hawk (a well-dressed man with a beard) serve as its pivot point? Why do you think the author chose to set the story in two different centuries? And why these two in particular?

16. In shifting between chapters, what changes did you notice in the characters’ language, or the narrative tone? In what ways did you find the two separate narratives connected?

17. What is the "precise balance of terror and mollycoddling" that Charles Landis manages? How, when, and why do you think people respond to this leadership style?

18. The shooting of Uri Carruth by Charles Landis, and subsequent not-guilty verdict, are actual historical events. Is the anecdote relevant to the  present? What is the role of journalism in a healthy society? Who is responsible for its integrity?

19. As they shift from parent-child to a more adult relationship, what does Willa learn from her daughter? How might "the secret of happiness" be "low expectations?" How does this relate to the lost-and-found quote about happiness from Willa Cather’s My Àntonia?

20. Thatcher settles finally on seeing Mary Treat as "a giant redwood: oldest and youngest of all living things, the tree that stood past one eon into the next." Do you agree?
(Questions issued by HarperCollins.)

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