Returning home or finding home is often the whole point of Thanksgiving; that, and celebrating family. I was about to use the phrase “central theme” before I quickly stilled the old English teacher part of my brain — phew. So, it seems odd to be writing about a book titled “Unsheltered.” Throughout Barbara Kingsolver’s novel, two families struggle with turning houses of shelter into proper homes for those in conflict with themselves and the world outside their doors.
Here’s the current family: Lano, tenured prof who’s just lost his job when his college closed; Willa, now a freelance writer because her magazine gave up the job; Lano’s oxygen-dependent dad, Nick; and Antigone, a wild and spontaneous spirit of a daughter, a.k.a. “Tig.” The family has just moved into an inherited house in Vineland, New Jersey, and, no surprise, the house is literally falling apart.
Oh, add one more: son Zeke’s wife has just given birth to Aldous, then died, leaving Zeke basically penniless. So yes, baby Dusty joins the crew, while Zeke ostensibly tries to get back on his feet.
Believe it or not, this is not a set up for disaster. Very gradually and chapter by chapter, Kingsolver reveals the knowledge and surprises that lead to a very satisfying ending. We discover that Tig has hidden skills that include auto mechanics (three years in Cuba), compassionate caregiving for Nick, and a penchant for motherhood. Lano spreads his good-natured optimism far and wide, while Willa researches the history of Vineland and the house in particular, trying to find grant money to deal with a crumbling pile of bricks.
Enter Thatcher Greenwood and Mary Treat, two characters from the house’s Victorian period. Mary is a self-taught botanist, seeking homes for and exploring the foundations of local flora and fauna. She befriends Thatcher, current occupant of the Vineland house, a teacher enamored of Darwin’s theories, and there, the twain shall meet.
As Thatcher battles with the town fathers over the possible acceptance of Darwinian science and Mary works quietly in her collection and classification of species, the house becomes a central player in the drama, just as it is over 100 years later for Willa and her family.