Mary’s unsung genius is uncovered by Willa 150 years later, as she researches her Victorian home’s historic roots with the hopes it once belonged to Mary and therefore might qualify for a grant for restitution. And though they are living in two separate eras, Willa and Thatcher embark on parallel journeys to rebuild the tumultuous worlds in which they find themselves and resist systems that run counter to their own theories about survival. In this sense, “Unsheltered” is an intriguing study about how the past seems to reach out of nowhere to shape the future.
Few authors write the natural world as luminously as Kingsolver. As in her previous books, Kingsolver’s prose is an ode to the surroundings her characters inhabit. “They both went quiet watching a heron stalk through reeds at the creek’s margin. With each stilted step the long head slid forward on a smooth horizontal axis. Thatcher knew the danger in that serpentine head and neck, the forceful thrust of his knife-like beak.”
Some of the characters, though, border on the outlandish. Tig, the proud white alum of Occupy Wall Street who wears dreadlocks and has recently returned from a stint in Cuba, lectures so vigorously about the toxicity of capitalism that dinner table chatter feels more like a Ted Talk binge. Iano’s father Nick, who recalls the atrocities of the Greek Civil War with precision, spews racial slurs incessantly with no real narrative purpose except, one can only assume, to make Willa’s life more hellish than it already is. Even Willa’s own subtle racism — her silent imitation of African-American vernacular, her persistent curiosity about the Puerto Rican family next door, and her projection about Zeke’s new Indian girlfriend —grows tiresome quickly.
Willa’s plight as a nearly homeless, uninsured, underemployed freelance journalist in her mid-50s reflects those of legions of women facing both ageism and poverty while attempting to carve out a career in publishing. But Kingsolver has hurled so many hardships at Willa — a terminally ill and vulgar father-in-law; a directionless, newly widowed son; a colicky, motherless grandson; a kind but largely ineffective husband; a preachy, insufferable daughter; a naïve college student infatuated with her husband; all while an unnamed white supremacist runs for president – that we lose sight of her. One wishes Kingsolver had dedicated more pages to the obstacles Mary Treat must have faced as a woman scientist in the late 1800s, instead of heaping so many misfortunes on Willa.
This criticism is not a fatal one, though. “Unsettled” is an ambitious undertaking that succeeds in illuminating a forgotten chapter in history as its characters evolve toward restoration and recovery. “First they would stagger, then grow competent, and then forget the difficulty altogether while thinking of other things, and that was survival.”