Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver

Hello, and welcome back to another review by your armchair reader The Wild Book Spy!

What a book! This is my first exploration of this author and it was so impressive. Basically, this beautifully written exploration of current concerns divides its time between two threads alternately: one is set in Vineland, America in 1871 and the other – also in Vineland but in 2016.

There are many thoughts and ideas explored between the two stories but one that recurs is the massive reluctance and resistance of societies to explore and adjust to new understandings that might challenge the more comfortable view that life must go on as it always has and that we already have all the knowledge that we need to justify and maintain that view.

The major players are keenly profiled and it is easy for the reader to understand their cares, motivations and challenges. In 1871, the main character is Thatcher – a school teacher – who is trying to teach his students about the new thinking springing from Darwin’s insights. He is being stoutly resisted by the headmaster and the town worthies and his friend Mary Treat – a distinguished amateur botanist encourages him:

“still your pupils depend on it Thatcher. Their little families have come here looking for safety, but they will go on labouring under old authorities until their heaven collapses. Your charge is to lead them out of doors. Teach them to see evidence for themselves, and not to fear it.”

“To stand in the clear light of day, you once said. Unsheltered.”

This is a very powerful novel encompassing both the intellectual challenges facing those who see clearly what must change and the ensuing resistance of others, whilst also examining the difficulties of everyday life. The two time arenas of the story are linked together by the same, crumbling house that both parties inhabit – the philosophical and practical concerns of life knitted seamlessly together in their unstable refuge.

So, Darwinism presents as the great challenge to settled minds in the nineteenth century but in the present day chapters it is the climate crisis that holds centre stage as the problem truth that no-one wants to hear. Resistance to new thought is wisely portrayed by the author with a convincing generosity and understanding of why people repel the changes they fear,

“When men fear the loss of what they know, they will follow any tyrant, who promises to restore the old order,” Mary Treat affirms.

Perhaps we can take heart that in spite of the abounding preference to protect the status quo, Darwinism has never-the-less prevailed and become mainstream thinking. We might conclude that the author hopes that the same will obtain with the climate crisis and those who prolong it will ultimately be exposed:

“ One percent of the brotherhood has their hands on most of the bread. They own the country, their god is the free market, and most people are so unhorrified they won’t even question the system… The free market has exactly the same morality as a cancer cell,” proclaims Tig a main character in the present day plot.

Both the threads are swaddled in vividly depicted aspects of family life: friendship, love and the impact and importance of the natural world - enabling the reader to identify in some ways with the lives depicted and therefore be more sympathetic to the many dilemmas explored.

It is a richly rewarding read on many levels, shot through with the essence of being unsheltered in difficult times and outrageous Greek profanities!

A book to think about and treasure.

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