Her new novel Unsheltered stands up for decency in the face of an indecent president— and asks tough questions about her country’s originsby Diane Roberts / December 12, 2018 / Leave a comment
It’s apropos—in a bitter sort of way—that Donald Trump’s election as US president propelled George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four to the upper reaches of the bestseller list 68 years after its publication. The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel which is now a successful television series began to look more frighteningly prophetic after 8th November 2016. (Atwood has just announced a sequel.) The hit historical musical Hamilton, which premiered before Trump announced his candidacy, is a sharp critique of white nationalism. Trump haunts American culture—loudly. The New York Public Theatre’s 2017 production of Julius Caesar reimagined the Roman general as a mouthy, yellow-haired politico sporting a red tie, while the short-lived revival of the television series Roseanne cast Trump as the voice of working-class angst. For musicians Kendrick Lamar and the Decemberists Trump embodies anti-democratic decadence.
And what of the writers? Historians and journalists, especially those who have witnessed the monster in his labyrinth of denial, are cranking out books hard and fast. But novelists are also in the game, and when we crawl out from the ruins of the American Empire, they’ll be the ones we turn to for insights, solace and emotional truth. Salman Rushdie was quick off the mark in 2017 with The Golden House, in which a rich New York “vulgarian” with bright lime-green hair is known for “hogging the limelight with evident delight.” In 2018’s Lake Success by Gary Shteyngart, a Manhattan hedge fund manager abandons his family and takes to riding around America on Greyhound buses, encountering Trump supporters.
Now Barbara Kingsolver’s new novel Unsheltered examines how people might live their lives with decency and generosity in a country of warring tribes, ruled over by men who exploit hatred to maintain control. Trump isn’t the focus of Kingsolver’s story: he’s more of a malodorous cloud. But as much as his avarice, his narcissism, his anti-intellectualism and his racism may disgust us, Trump is a symptom, not the disease itself. Kingsolver knows the seeds of America’s decline were planted long ago, perhaps even before the Founding Fathers proclaimed equality and freedom in a country built on inequality and slavery. Nevertheless, this story of two families, one from 2016 and one from 1871, exposes the fragility of freedom, the illusory nature of prosperity, and the decline of democratic institutions.
In the 2016 story, Willa Knox has discovered that the old house she has just inherited is, as the builder inspecting it says, “a shambles.” He advises tearing it down. Starting over. But Willa’s unemployed—the magazine she wrote for has folded—and her husband, an academic, lost his position when his old university went bankrupt. He now has to accept year-to-year contracts at a second-rate college not far from the town of Vineland, New Jersey.
Adding to the financial and emotional stress, their daughter Antigone (known as “Tig”) has abandoned her biology degree for a life of political activism, while their son has been left the single parent of a very young baby after his girlfriend commits suicide. Willa decides to research the former inhabitants of her house, hoping to find some historically significant characters or events which might qualify it for a preservation grant to shore up her home’s cracking plaster and crumbling foundations.
Vineland is a real place, founded in 1862 by a property developer called Charles Landis. It was supposed to be a sort of Utopian village, not as radical as, say, the Oneida Community, which embraced “free love,” or the Oberlin Colony with its common ownership of all property, but dedicated to responsible capitalism and sobriety. Landis invited Italian viticulturists to his new town to make “unfermented wine,” and encouraged the temperance activist and dentist George Bramwell Welch to develop a way of pasteurising grape juice for use in alcohol-free communion services.
As Kingsolver tells it, Vineland cultivated a lush growth of free-thinking as well. In the 1871 story, Thatcher Greenwood, a Civil War veteran, and his wife Rose, leave Boston for Vineland, moving in with Rose’s mother and younger sister. Though their new house looks fine, even grand, Thatcher soon discovers that it is badly built, desperately in need of the kind of repairs he can’t afford on a teacher’s salary. Thatcher’s interested in new thinking, science and Vineland strikes him as a dull, small-minded place. Then he meets Mary Treat, whose doctor husband seems to have abandoned her, and soon finds himself entangled in the debate over rationalism and religion. Like Charles Landis (who makes several appearances in the novel) Mary Treat is also a historical character, a noted entomologist and botanist who corresponded with Charles Darwin.
Willa’s and Thatcher’s lives are not perfect parallels, but they do confront similar issues. Willa is a woman struggling to maintain her sense of self as a writer and thinker while dealing with a newborn, a depressed son, a charming (but irresponsible) husband and Nick, her angry, dementia-suffering, Trump-loving father-in-law. To torment his liberal family, Nick likes to crank up the right-wing talk shows he listens to on the radio. They boil over with callers “clinging to a century-old vision of America,” “offended to distraction by the idea of a non-white man at the helm of their great nation,” and not “completely sold on female suffrage.” Back in 1871, Thatcher’s wife Rose is desperately conventional, obsessed with manners and money, while his mother-in-law is a provincial snob. Mary Treat becomes Thatcher’s intellectual refuge, especially when the town turns on him for daring to teach Darwin’s theories in the local school.
Kingsolver uses the disintegrating house as a means of time travel, implying that the past shapes and constantly intrudes into the present. Her chapters alternate, one in 2016, then one in 1871, making transitions with an elegant little device in which the final words of one chapter become the title of the next, but used in a different sense. In one scene, Willa’s trying to understand what her fellow citizens find so attractive about Trump, how they so blithely deny scientific fact, and why her family, who excelled at the supposed requirements for achieving the American Dream—getting an education, working hard—teeter on the brink of bankruptcy.
They find themselves “between Scylla and Charybdis,” says Nick, telegraphing the title of the next chapter, in which Thatcher Greenwood, sent to find his family’s errant dogs, Scylla and Charybdis, discovers them with their neighbour, Mary Treat, happily wagging their tails as she sits in her drawing room, allowing a carnivorous plant to “chew” on the tip of her finger. When he finally takes his leave of her, he turns “homeward, striking out.” In the next chapter, Willa “strikes out” in the baseball sense: she’s defeated, unable to help her son Zeke who’s drowning in student loans, unable to pay medical expenses not covered under the family health insurance policy.
Willa and Thatcher strive, in their own ways and in their own historical moments, to be true to themselves while behaving with love and generosity to those around them. But they can’t stop the larger forces of prejudice and factionalism. For Willa, the rise of Trump and the manifest unfairness of American society seem a betrayal of everything she believed about her country; for Thatcher, it’s the religious bigots who refuse to believe that God did not create Adam and Eve as a pair of blond, blue-eyed proto-Americans and also his wife, who leaves him for a rich nonentity.
Kingsolver is often called a “political novelist,” a description she is said to dislike. Nevertheless, her work constantly explores the relationship between power and the individual, the historical winds shifting the state and the personal passions within families. In 1998’s The Poisonwood Bible a southern Baptist missionary family in the Belgian Congo on the eve of independence must contend with their daughters’ coming-of-age among diamond smugglers and freedom fighters as well as the consequences of America’s covert attacks on anti-colonial movements. The Lacuna, winner of the 2010 Orange Prize, tells the story of a young Mexican-American man working in the seductive menage of painters Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo at the time when Leon Trotsky came to stay and later during America’s anti-communist hysteria.
Kingsolver has tackled a number of progressive issues in her fiction, including the historic injustice done to Native Americans (Pigs in Heaven), and the Reagan administration’s illegal arming of the right-wing Nicaraguan Contras (Animal Dreams), so it seems pretty much inevitable she’d take on Trump. And not merely Trump, in all his Technicolor transgressions, but the inability of some white people in the US to accept that the nation will not always be the world’s greatest power, they will not always be in charge, and that the country is becoming more racially diverse by the second.
Vineland’s houses, with their crumbling foundations and sagging walls, are an obvious, but still compelling, metaphor for the sorry condition of these disunited states. In an 1858 speech, Abraham Lincoln echoed Scripture as he warned the nation: “A house divided against itself, cannot stand.” Lincoln spoke specifically of slavery as unsustainable in a nation supposedly dedicated to liberty; America fought a terrible war over it between 1861 and 1865. That war has never really ended. Slavery has been abolished but inequality and injustice remain. Witness the high death rates of young black men, the violence caused by American Nazis in Charlottesville in 2017, which Trump refused to condemn outright, and his administration’s policy of interning thousands of migrant children in desert camps. The Civil War preserved the Union, but actual unity (if such a thing ever existed) is elusive.
Despite the cherished myth of American “greatness,” located back in the 1950s or the 1920s or 1850s or some other golden time when white men’s authority went unchallenged, Kingsolver realises that America has always been an argument or an aspiration more than a concrete reality. Her Vineland is America in miniature: insecure, often angry, suspicious, as well as generous, curious, hungry for knowledge.
As a writer, Kingsolver can be a trifle earnest: her protagonists are politically-engaged, well read, kind, tolerant—the sort of people you want to volunteer with on a get-out-the-vote campaign or while cleaning up a local lake. They rarely sulk or throw tantrums, even when they are treated badly, even when they make big mistakes. Kingsolver is a biologist by training, a keen observer of human life, but also something of a moralist. Willa and Thatcher are long-suffering and good, trying hard not to blame their fellow citizens for their ignorance and small-mindedness. They are rarely tempted to selfish behaviour like having an affair or getting a well-paying but soulless job. Sometimes they sound more like virtuous mouthpieces for progressive politics than actual people.
But Kingsolver is such an engaging storyteller, so good with the texture of her characters’ lives, that her more didactic medicine goes down pretty easy. America, like Vineland, began as a kind of Utopian ideal—at least on paper. Of course, the famous ambition to be a “shining city upon a hill” has never been realised, nor could it be. Utopia is neither possible nor really desirable, yet it is what America claims it has always worked towards—the more perfect Union.
These days, as Unsheltered illuminates for us, America is farther away from the community of the just than ever. You don’t go to Kingsolver for gorgeous prose or deeply messy inner lives; you go to her novels for stories of people doing their damnedest to behave with decency and grace in an ugly world. It may be that in Trump’s America, that’s what we need more than anything.