Unsheltered is a none too subtle examination of the times we live in, and the blinders that prevent us, and likely have always prevented us, from being our true selves and securing a meaningful future. The story takes place today and in the 1870s in Vineland, New Jersey. Today’s story and the story of yesterday revolve around a ramshackle house.
Willa Knox and her husband Iano Tavoularis, along with unconventional daughter Tig, far right nationalist and dying father in-law, Nick and ancient dog Dixie, have just moved to Vineland from Virginia. Iano had been a professor in Virginia when the university suddenly closed and the family was left border line destitute. Iano found a job at a small college in Philadelphia and thus the move. Willa had inherited the house from an aunt and so the family moved in, only to find that the house was about to fall down. Much of the family’s story revolves around what to do about the house.
Thatcher Greenwood has recently married the younger and beautiful Rose. Rose’s mother, Aurelia, had been forced to leave her beloved home and social stature in Vineland when her husband died, leaving her penniless. She had been forced to rent out the home and move Rose and her other daughter Polly into a cousin’s house in Boston. Thatcher, a teacher, found a teaching position in Vineland, and the entire family moved back into Aurelia’s Vineland home. Thatcher arrives to find that the home is crumbling around them and that the family’s expectations of his economic success are unrealistic. Thatcher’s story takes place between the years 1874-75.
Willa’s sun, Zeke, has a newborn child whose mother has committed suicide. Zeke had been living in Boston but returns to Vineland with the baby to enlist the aid of his family. Zeke does not stay in Vineland long and the task of raising the child goes to Tig and Willa, as does the task of taking care of Nick. Zeke is something of an investment banker and Tig is something of a free spirit, very focused on the environment and waste. The two do not get along and the differences in their life philosophies, as well as Nick’s far right sentimentalities, are used as a vehicle to express the author’s concerns with environmental decay, climate change, health care, the rejection of science and today’s politics.
Thatcher is a science teacher who believes strongly in evolution and survival of the fittest. His next door neighbor is Mary Treat, a historic botanist and entomologist who regularly corresponded with Charles Darwin. Thatcher and Mary become friends and Thatcher goes to Mary with his challenges teaching science in a school where the emphasis is on religion. While the two are becoming friends, Aurelia and Rose are befriending the very wealthy Dunwiddie family, trying to desperately enhance their social and economic standing. Thatcher befriends the editor of an alternate newspaper. The friend is shot and things go downhill fast for Thatcher.
Back to Willa. Nick is dying and when she takes him to a medical clinic they refuse to see him due to lack of health insurance. Health insurance and the saving grace of Medicaid are a significant part of the story. In a desperate effort to shore up their crumbling house, Willa starts to research the history of the house hoping to receive an historic landmark designation and grant money. Through that research she learns about Thatcher Greenwood, Mary Treat and some of the history of Vineland.
The book is about moving beyond materiality and ambition and opening your heart and mind. In a sense, the book is a warning about what happens when you fail to move beyond yourself. Ultimately, both Willa and Thatcher understand that there are bigger things than ambition and possession.
“She aimed to be immune to the ambitions and disappointments that had maimed her parents’ existence and now were stirring up a national tidal wave of self-interest…Here was the earthquake, the fire, flood and melting permafrost, with everyone still grabbing for bricks to put in their pockets rather than walking out of the wreck looking for light.”
Each chapter alternates between Willa’s story and Thatcher’s story. The end of each chapter is effectively the beginning of the next. The novel starts out very slow. I have to admit that I almost gave up, but I trudged through and by the end was glad I did. The book is a tad preachy, but the concerns expressed and the characters themselves are real and thoughtful. If you like Barbara Kingsolver novels then you might want to give this one a try. You can reserve this at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.