Summary and book reviews of Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver

Unsheltered

A Novel

by Barbara Kingsolver

Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver X
Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2018, 480 pages
    Paperback:
    Oct 15, 2019, 480 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Rebecca Foster
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About this Book

Book 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.

1. Falling House

"The simplest thing would be to tear it down," the man said. "The house is a shambles."

She took this news as a blood-rush to the ears: a roar of peasant ancestors with rocks in their fists, facing the evictor. But this man was a contractor. Willa had called him here and she could send him away. She waited out her panic while he stood looking at her shambles, appearing to nurse some satisfaction from his diagnosis. She picked out words.

"It's not a living thing. You don't just pronounce it dead. Anything that goes wrong with a structure can be replaced with another structure. Am I right?"

"Correct. What I am saying is that the structure needing to be replaced is all of it. I'm sorry. Your foundation is nonexistent."

Again the roar on her eardrums. She stared at the man's black coveralls, netted with cobwebs he'd collected in the crawl space. Petrofaccio was his name. Pete. "How could a house this old have a nonexistent foundation?"

"Not ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  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 ...
Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

Here are some of the comments posted about Unsheltered.
You can see the full discussion here.


As their relationship shifts, what does Willa learn from Tig? How might "the secret of happiness" be "low expectations?"
Willa and Tigs relationship matured and they gained a new respect for each other. Tig was able to show Willa the necessity of making use of what you had available and not constantly striving for more. She also taught Willa patience in the way she ... - rco

Do you find Nick's bigotry and anger comprehensible? Why is Tig so patient? How do the family's conflicts relate to the polarization of present times?
Nick's anger, I believe, is based on his advancing age and inability to do the things he used to do. Times were different when he was able to care for himself and be independent. Maybe his bigotry is a substitution for longing for that time when he... - franee

Dusty's future
Dusty is the future. He will be raised by "the village" respecting and honoring different cultures and lifestyles. His very name - Aldus means - "from the old house". He represents the new shelter, protection by all. - bill and jackie

Final Words and Chapter Titles as Transition Points and Thematic Markers
I agree with MarieA - Maggie

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?
I loved the character of Mary Treat. She had the wonderful curious mind I admire and was secure in herself. I would have been happy hanging out with her, observing the spiders in her jars and laying on my stomach on the ground watching the ants ... - rco

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

Kingsolver is nothing if not heavy-handed with her messages: Thatcher and Mary Treat are enlightened scientists who value all of life, as opposed to the selfish, superstitious masses; the American health insurance system is byzantine and socialism would solve it; owning your own home and looking after your own family are not the be-all and end-all. Although Donald Trump is never named, he's clearly the outrageous "Bullhorn" figure, likened to Captain Landis, the tyrannical creator/leader of Vineland in the 1870s. The danger is that readers who are ideologically opposed to Kingsolver may be annoyed by her overt taking of sides, while those who already agree with her could be impatient with what seem like statements of the obvious. I felt Willa's conversations with Tig, a model of the future-minded human, were particularly unrealistic idea dumps. All the same, Unsheltered is a rich, rewarding novel with so much going on that it feels like it encompasses all of human life.   (Reviewed by Rebecca Foster).

Full Review Members Only (806 words).

Media Reviews

Publishers Weekly
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.

Booklist
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…

Kirkus Reviews
Starred Review. As always, 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.

Reader Reviews

Chris

Loved it!
I very much enjoyed this book on many different levels. Our family lived in an 1880’s historical home that we lovingly named “the money pit,” as everything was in disrepair. The modern day story that was told was very similar to our family - ...   Read More

John

Excellent read.
Great book. The drama of this novel is enhanced in its telling by its setting in the world of nature and scientific inquiry. As a nature lover, gardener, and one who esteems science I couldn't have stumbled upon a better choice when perusing the ...   Read More

Cloggie Downunder

an interesting, thought-provoking and eminently enjoyable read
Unsheltered is the ninth novel by best-selling, prize-winning American novelist, essayist, and poet, Barbara Kingsolver. Now in her fifties, Willa Knox never expected to be living in a run-down house in Vinelands, New Jersey, still the hub of a ...   Read More

Susan Coene

A disappointment from one of my favorites
This book could have been much better without all of the editorializing regarding the 'state of the union past and present.' I agree with Ms. Kingsolver's political views and yet I felt I was being reprimanded by the author. We are all getting ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

The Historical Figures in Unsheltered

Mary Treat

Mary TreatAlthough the two protagonists of Barbara Kingsolver's Unsheltered are fictional, she includes historical figures in her 19th-century story line. Chief among these is Mary Treat, a rare female scientist who deserves to be better known than she is – I had no idea until I got to the Acknowledgments at the back of the book that Treat was a real person. Born Mary Davis in Trumansburg, New York in September 1830, she was the daughter of a Methodist minister. She grew up there and in Ohio and was educated by turns at a private girls' academy and a public school.

In 1863 she married Dr. Joseph Burrell Treat, a professor and abolitionist. After a time spent in Iowa, the couple moved to Vineland, New Jersey in 1869. It...

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