9780062887047_p0_v2_s600x595   Reading Unsheltered was difficult, not only for the weaving back and forth from the post Civil War era to the present, but also for the not so subtle references to today’s politics and governmental leadership in the United States. As she toggles between the lives of the 21st century grandmother Willa Knox and the 19th century science teacher Thatcher Greenwood, who both lived in the same house, the language seems stuffy in the past and glib in the present.  Most depressing is the implication of ignoring lessons from history – nothing really changes and we continue to repeat the same mistakes.

I thought of beginning this review with the note of the main character, Willa, suddenly having to take on the raising of her grandson when his mother commits suicide. Although years ago,  I clearly remember meeting a woman in her sixties who had decided to raise her abandoned grandchild to keep the boy from foster care; her harrowing story was pitiable.  But Kingsolver has so much more to reveal in this tale of a modern extended family surviving in a rundown yet historic house in Vineland, New Jersey.  Her topics include raising children but also health care and global warming, as well as Wall Street activism and relations with Cuba – among others. She has an agenda.

Willa lives in the house with her handsome husband Iano, a non-tenured college professor, her terminally ill father-in-law Nick, her rebellious daughter Tig,  her son Zeke’s baby son, and Daisy, the old dog.  Thatcher, a high school science teacher, lives in this house about 150 years earlier with his new wife Rose, his mother-in-law, and his young sister-in-law, and two dogs.  The house, constructed without a foundation, has been falling apart since it was first built in Thatcher’s time, and seems about to implode by the time Willa’s family inherits it. 

The house may seem a symbol of their lives, also falling apart.  Thatcher, determined to bring scientific inquiry into his classes by teaching Darwin’s theories, faces a stalwart and fearful body of staunch religious conservatives, determined to ignore new ideas that would topple their well structured world.  Thatcher finds a friend in his neighbor, Mary Treat, an eminent biologist who regularly corresponds with Charles Darwin, but his connection to the local newsman who sympathizes with his struggle leads to a murder and his banishment from the town.

Although Willa’s problems may be modern, they mirror Thatcher’s frustration in dealing with those circumstances thwarting attempts to have the good life.  Iona moves from college to college trying but never getting the elusive tenure track position; Willa leaves her job writing for a magazine to care for her ailing father-in-law; their son Zeke with degrees from Ivy league schools has no job; their daughter Tig, a promising biologist, dropped out of college to migrate to Cuba but returns as a car mechanic – an extended middle class family with no future prospects, no savings, a stack of unpaid bills, in a falling down house.

In both worlds, present and past, the underlying mantra is the struggle between the haves and have nots.  Darwin and new scientific discoveries pose the threat to the status quo in the past, butting against Landis, the town creator and clever entrepreneur gaining wealth at the expense of others, while the environmentalists and the socially conscious in modern times are desperately trying to hold against the empty promises and loud blustering bullies of conservative politics.

Unsheltered is not an easy read, but Kingsolver never meant to write a book with sublime references to love or with delicious twists; she’s left that to Moriarty and others.  The reference to a murder doesn’t appear until page 300, and then disappears again in deference to biology, history and the inevitable repetition of human foibles and idiocy; it’s a wonder our species has survived thus far.

Kingsolver finished this book before Trump won the presidency, and his name is never mentioned.  In fact, in her acknowledgments she notes her research on the lives of the nineteenth century persons who inspired the story, the biologist Mary Treat and the “shenanigans of Charles Landis and his role in the murder,” but “among the novel’s twenty-first century characters, any resemblance to persons living or dead is coincidental.”   But if you have any doubt to whom she is referring, she cites a famous campaign quote:

“He said he could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and people would still vote for him.”

And if you have any doubt where she stands, the line after he wins the New Hampshire primary – “Welcome to the Granite State…we have rocks in our heads!” – may give you a clue.


When Fiction Follows Truth

In an eerie reminder of the cost of abusing the environment, Jim Robbins in an article for the New York Times Sunday Review – The Year the Monarch Didn’t Appear  – noted that this year “for the first time in memory” the butterflies did not fly to the central Mexican forests for their annual migration on November 1st, as they have for centuries.

Where have I heard that before?  Barbara Kingsolver used that premise in her novel Flight Behavior.  Have you read it?

butterfly30Monarch butterflies and bees are disappearing.  According to Robbins’ article, roads, parking lots, manicured lawns, and pesticides are destroying natural habitats.  In Kingsolver’s fictionalized story, the butterflies lose their instinctive tracking system and show up in Appalachia.  The story ends with a natural disaster (I won’t spoil it for you, if you haven’t read it), but Robbins predicts a real disaster with the ending of his article:

“…If the bees were to truly disappear, we would lose 80 percent of the plants…That’s a huge problem for mankind.”

I’m planning a trip to Pacific Grove, California next year – one of the stops for the monarch butterfly’s migration  I wonder if they will be there.

International Women’s Day

9780230294011_p0_v1_s114x166Today marks International Women’s Day, a celebration of women around the world that has been observed since the early 1900’s. .  In some places like China, Russia, Vietnam and Bulgaria, International Women’s Day is a national holiday.  In Britain, Professor Elisabeth Kelan will discuss her book – Rising Stars – an examination of the next generation’s female leaders.

Books to read to celebrate the day… what books would you add to the list?

The Red Tent by Anita Diamant 9780312427290_p0_v3_s114x166

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver9780060786502_p0_v3_s114x166

Cleopatra: A Life  by Stacy Schiff9780316001946_p0_v1_s114x166

Flight Behavior

9780062124265_p0_v1_s260x420The butterfly effect, global warming, the hills of Appalachia, and a feisty heroine converge in Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior to create her best story yet.

The opening lines of Barbara Kingsolver’s latest book offer a caution and a tease:

A certain feeling comes from throwing your good life away, and it is one part rapture.  Or so it seemed for now, to a woman with flame-colored hair who marched uphill to meet her demise.  Innocence was no part of this.  She knew her own recklessness and marveled, really, at how one hard little flint of thrill could outweigh the pillowy, suffocating aftermath of a long disgrace.”

In Fight Behavior, Kingsolver connects the yearning of a young bright Appalachian woman with missed opportunities to the crisis of global warming and the potential extinction of  a kaleidoscope of butterflies who have been misdirected by the miscues of nature.  The butterflies bring change and revelation in unexpected ways.

Dellarobia Turnbow had the potential to make something of herself, but she got pregnant in high school, married the local farm boy, and settled into an unsatisfying life, working the sheep farm with her in-laws – until one day, when she discovers a miracle that changes her life.  Monarch butterflies migrating south for the winter appeared in the green hills behind the farm, attaching themselves to the trees Dellarobia’s father-in-law had decided to cut down to manage his debts.  Kingsolver adroitly manages the confluence of the local gossips, their church, the persistent news woman, and a diligent scientist, as the presence of the monarch butterflies slowly becomes the focal point of the small rural town.

At first, the characters fall into stereotypical roles – the demanding mother-in-law, the well-meaning farmer husband, the egghead scientist – but Kingsolver forces the reader to shed all judgemental assumptions by revealing their underlying natures.  Dellarobia is as simmering and brilliant as the beautiful butterflies hanging from the trees – all ready to take flight unexpectedly.  Her children – six-year-old Preston, with his burgeoning interest in science fueled by a 1950s encyclopedia, and toddler Cordelia – at once tie her to her life while offering her a promise to make it better.  Ovid, the scientist who creates a camp behind the barn, and later establishes a lab on the farm that not only draws in Dellarobia but also allows her to exercise her intelligence and freedom.  He creates more questions than answers and through him, Kingsolver educates the reader.

The fight and flight behavior persists throughout the story as both Dellarobia and the monarchs struggle for survival.  Kingsolver neatly points to a hopeful future  before she ends with an unexpected blow that might not be a surprise if the reader is carefully attending to the consequences predicted when nature is ignored.  But I didn’t see it coming, and maybe that’s the point – none of us ever do.

A book with a message and characters who will stay with you.  As ever, Kingsolver does not disappoint.