Unsheltered: 9 reasons (not) to despair

Picture of Leigh Turner
Leigh Turner

“Unsheltered”, by Barbara Kingsolver, is a beautiful book that expresses eloquently the mood of contemporary America. But don’t despair.

“Unsheltered” shows Barbara Kingsolver is a great writer

Unsheltered pulses with exquisite prose about two families living in a crumbling house in Vineland, New Jersey, 150 years apart.

When Thatcher Greenwood, the hero of the 1870s cycle, scolds his wife Rose, we hear that:

  • Her eyes flared like a struck match before she looked away.

As the cover says, the book is – in many ways – magnificent.

Willa Knox, the hero of the contemporary cycle, admires her grandson:

  • She lay with her chin on her forearms admiring the baby’s wren-feather eyelashes and delicate nostrils, the bottom lip tucked into the infant overbite.  The melon of belly expanding, contracting.

Each chapter ends with the title of the following chapter.  We learn that Willa, faced with a grisly task,

  • mommed up and did the deed.

This is elegant, powerful stuff.

9 reasons why “Unsheltered” drove me (half) crazy

Despite its undoubted excellence, the book drove me half crazy.  Here are nine reasons why.

Parallels are rammed home

The linking of developments in the 1870s, such as oppressive capitalism and the fight against Darwin, to events in the present day, is sometimes heavy-handed.  Take this speech by the scientist Mary Treat (a real historical character):

  • I suppose it is in our nature… when men fear the loss of what they know, they will follow any tyrant who promises to restore the old order.”

Thatcher replies:

  • If that is our nature, then nature is madness.  These are more dangerous times than we have ever known.”

OK, we get it.

“Unsheltered”: Everything is awful

Actually, in Unsheltered’s contemporary US, everything is beyond awful.  When Willa takes her father-in-law, Nick, to a clinic for treatment, they are turned away.  She says to the receptionist:

  • “I know this probably changes nothing, but can I just tell you that my father-in-law is oozing blood and fluid from most of his lower body?  His pain has to be off the charts.” 

Willa’s eloquence does not succeed in getting treatment for Nick.

Willa’s father-in-law is a parody

Nick is a parody of shock-jock sentiments.  Throughout Unsheltered, he rails against foreigners, women and racial minorities in a torrent of slurs designed to enrage Willa.  One mild example:

  • “Thing is, if there’s girls and Mexicans in a factory, there’s not going to be enough jobs for the men”.

Nick says much worse, and so often, you want to turn the page to escape him.

“Unsheltered”: Willa is so sad

Willa is permanently depressed about everything.  On a day out with her charming but maddeningly feckless husband Iano, she despairs.

  • “I’m sorry.  I know you hate this.  But you might just have to let me be sad, OK?”  “OK.  But for what?”  She shrugged, looking away.  “I don’t know.  Damn Hurricane Sandy and the damn Park Service budget cuts.  We can’t afford to stop doing the shit that’s screwing up the weather, and can’t afford to pick up the pieces after we do our shit.”

Even the dog is dying…

Even the dog in Unsheltered, Dixie, is at death’s door:

  • “Dixie… who now had a palsy in her hind legs and other signs of being not long for this world… was starting to make a high-pitched whine they’d learned not to ignore.  Her bladder no longer lasted beyond the edge of the yard, if even that.”

…and the kids won’t bond

Willa’s family is beyond dysfunctional.  She yearns to be closer to Tig, her improbably eloquent grown-up daughter.  But at a Christmas pageant, things go wrong.

  • “Tig fist-bumped herself into the crowd, much happier there than with her own family, Willa noted with the habitual pang…. [Willa] shook her head, tight lipped… because words might unstop the flood of emotion she’d kept pressed in her throat for hours.  It was just too embarrassing to walk around sobbing at a festival of Christmas lights.  Fake cheer it would have to be.”  

No wonder Iano observes:

  • “You’ve been sad for a hundred years.”

Everything is sh*t

Tig sums up the state of contemporary America:

  • “You prepped for the wrong future.  It’s not just you.  Everybody your age is, like, crouching inside this box made out of what they already believe.  You think it’s a fallout shelter or something but it’s a piece of shit box, Mom.  It’s cardboard, drowning in the rain, going all floppy.  And you’re saying, ‘This is all there is, it will hold up fine.  this box will keep me safe!”

But Cuba is perfect

By contrast, Tig highlights the wonders of Cuba:

  • “Oh, the food was amazing.  And the music.  They had this super smooth band playing mambos and sarabands.  The singer looked all prim but then opens her mouth and out comes this killing sexy voice, and of course we all danced, between courses.  Everybody dances in Cuba.  They’ve perfected all the fun things that don’t cost anything, like dancing and sex.”

The good old days

Willa reflects on how much better things were in the past:

  • “Mary and Thatcher had lived in enviable times, when biologists were discovering new species right and left, not watching them go extinct.” 

Later, when she takes refuge in a church, we hear that:

  • Willa accepted her usual front-row seat on the crumble of civilisation.”

“Unsheltered” – a brilliant book

None of this detracts from the brilliance of the book. Indeed, it may be that a campaigning text has to lay its message on thick to make its point effectively. Compared with, say, the purple prose of Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens, and its attack on the Gordon Riots of 1780, Unsheltered is a model of understated, forensic analysis.

Redemption and hope

Eventually (no spoilers) both Thatcher and Willa achieve a kind of redemption.  The key is a shedding of possessions and rejection of consumerism.

The final chapters of both cycles hammer the message home. Tig says:

  • “It feels like the end of the world when you can’t have the things you always wanted.  But it’s not the end of the world… without all that crap overhead, you’re standing in the daylight… what you have to do is look for blue sky.”

A few pages later and 150 years earlier, Thatcher reflects that:

  • Without shelter, we stand in daylight.

Similarly, when Willa is sorting out old papers near the end of the book she finds a scrap given to her by her mother with a text to be read at her funeral:

  • “Willa wiped her face with the back of her hand.  “It was here in this box, with these completely unrelated things that weren’t important to me, inside other boxes of completely unrelated things.  I had too many things.  Just too much goddamn stuff.””

“Unsheltered”: A beautiful funeral text

The text which Willa’s mother wanted reading at her funeral, from My Antonia by Willa Cather, is beautiful:

  • “I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more.  I was entirely happy.  Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become a part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge.  At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great.  When it comes to one, it comes as naturally as sleep.”

A Marie Kondo catharsis

The book ends in a kind of Marie Kondo catharsis.  I found the conclusion – you’re better off without a load of possessions weighing you down – sympathetic and right, linking elegantly back to the title (of which a less elegant version would be: “How to be unsheltered”).  I think a lot of people will enjoy the book and its message.

But I felt a bit lectured, getting there.

“Unsheltered” as a reflection of contemporary America

You can also see Unsheltered as a vivid reflection of the contemporary mood in the US.  Nick may feel an absurd parody this side of the pond, or he may reflect millions of real Americans – I don’t know.  Willa’s despair about the state of the world seems OTT – yet it also reminds me of my friend’s anxiety about terrorism in my post Things are getting better.  Not worse The depiction of a polarised, paralysed society where half the population is driven barmy by the other half and most people don’t seem to be making much progress may be a faithful reflection of the United States of America today.

But before you, too, despair, bear in mind that although many of the richest countries, including the US, have fallen behind, relative to the rest of the world, in the last couple of decades, that is in part because a lot of the rest of the world has been catching them up.  For the world as a whole, that is a good thing.

Why you should not despair

If you find what I have just said puzzling or dubious, see my post DON’T PANIC: a communications masterclass, about the late great Swedish statistician Hans Rosling, showing that the state of the world is better than you think.  If you don’t have time to do that, look at this incredible animated chart of life expectancy (a good surrogate for living standards) from 1800-2022 for all the countries of the world, produced by Rosling’s Gapminder foundation.

You should also bear in mind Tuchman’s law, coined by the eponymous American historian in 1971:

  • “The fact of being reported multiplies the apparent extent of any deplorable development by five- to tenfold” (or any figure the reader would care to supply).”

“The Americans”: my views

Finally, see my illustrated story The Americans for my own attempt to figure out this fascinating and challenging nation.  Many splendid tales.

I hope you enjoyed this post on “Unsheltered”. Shares of and comments, as always, welcome.

Robert Pimm 1979

With Dorothy Berkowitz in Yonkers, setting out on to meet “The Americans


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One Response

  1. Last night I saw an interview with the film director Douglas Sirk, famous for his fifties melodramas, who said “once you start to preach you’re making a bad film”. Ditto for novels, on the whole.
    My favourite apocyphal contemporaneous quote about Darwin was attributed to the wife of the Bishop of Worcester: “My dear, we will hope it is not true. But if it is, let us pray that it may not become generally known!”
    Imposing the present on the past is one of the most tedious features of modern writing and filming. “Flintstone history” as it’s been termed.
    But Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible was a great read.

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