When Barbara Kingsolver starts writing a novel, she identifies an intriguing, vital question, one without a clear answer. What question, it seems natural to ask, did she ponder for her latest novel? Her response is somewhat startling.
We speak by phone from her home in southwestern Virginia, where she’s “happily in my beautiful office, looking out the window at trees.” Her voice sounds relaxed and gracious, and when I confess that I originally hail from a small town in southern West Virginia, not too far away, she says, “Well, you and I could talk in our native tongues if we wanted to.” As a bit of twang from her Kentucky roots creeps into her voice, she notes that her accent “depends on where I am in my book tour, whether I’m the nice radio Barbara, or if I’ve been home lately, then my vowels will shift a little.”
When it comes to the key question that prompted her remarkable new novel, Unsheltered, Kingsolver responds with no trace of a Southern accent: “WTF?!”
Here’s what prompted her expletive outburst: “I was watching so many things that we’ve mostly spent our lives trusting in—such as, if you work hard, there will be a job at the end of the college degree. There will be a pension at the end of your career. There will always be more fish in the sea. The poles will stay frozen. Every single one of those is now up for debate.”
She quickly corrects herself. “No, not even up for debate—wrong! What are the rules of civil governance? What does it mean to be a patriot, to be a good American? What does it mean to be president? You know, everything that we’ve spent a long time believing in as the correct way to proceed is looking less and less true.”
In a nutshell, Kingsolver explains her “WTF moment” as rough shorthand for, “What do we do and why, when it looks like all the rules that we’ve believed in are no longer true?”
She takes a breath and asks, “Is that an answer?”
The result of Kingsolver’s latest search for answers is yet another tour de force of fiction, a riveting successor to novels like Flight Behavior and The Poisonwood Bible. In alternating chapters, Unsheltered tells the stories of two families inhabiting the same address, the corner of Sixth and Plum in Vinewood, New Jersey—one family living in the months leading up to the 2016 presidential election, the other in the 1870s.
“There have been many moments in history when civilizations started to unravel,” Kingsolver says. “So, I thought, wouldn’t it be interesting to look back at some others, set up a contrast and then try to make these two stories into one story?”
Both families are teetering on the brink of financial ruin in the midst of a societal shift. Modern-day Willa Knox is an unemployed editor whose magazine has folded; her husband is a professor whose college has closed. Their free-spirited adult daughter has suddenly appeared on their doorstep after a long absence, and a tragedy upends the life of their Harvard-educated son, bringing a newborn baby into the fold.
In the 1870s, a science teacher named Thatcher Greenwood is chastised for teaching the principles of Charles Darwin. He also befriends a brilliant scientist living next door. She is Mary Treat—a real-life, little-known naturalist who corresponded with Darwin.
“I’m always writing about this dynamic conflict between individual expression and communal belonging.”
“The fiction that I most admire is ambitious in its scope,” Kingsolver admits. She grew up reading “great, globally ambitious writers” like Melville and Doris Lessing, “people who were not content with household drama. They wanted to tackle conflict on a larger scale. . . . That’s the kind of novel I love to try to write. And I would much rather write it in fiction because I love creating character, and I love painting with those brushes.”
Kingsolver always imbues her fictional worlds with plenty of fascinating factual backbone, and this book is no exception. “I love delving into a completely new subject with each book,” she says. “They say every writer is just writing the same book again and again, and if that’s true, I’m always writing about this dynamic conflict between individual expression and communal belonging. But the settings and the specifics are always changing. . . . I love that, because I was one of those college kids who wanted to major in everything.”
Once Kingsolver decided to use Mary Treat as a fictionalized character, she traveled to Vineland, New Jersey, to study her writings. A treasure trove awaited, including letters from Darwin. In her acknowledgments, the author describes holding one such missive as “one of the most electric moments in my life.”
Even more surprises were in store. Kingsolver discovered that Vineland was a Utopian community created in the mid-1800s by an eccentric real-estate mogul named Charles Landis, who bears an uncanny resemblance to a certain modern politician. Landis, she says, “wanted to steal every scene because he’s a loud mouth. If he’d had a cell phone, he would have been tweeting. He was just the perfect sort of narcissist bully antihero that I needed to anchor my other story.”
Kingsolver quickly discovered other “uncanny and chilling” parallels to modern politics. For instance, in 2016, one presidential candidate—whom she alludes to but never names in her novel nor this interview—famously suggested that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue without losing voters, while Landis actually shot a man in the back of the head right on Vineland’s Main Street.
Landis’ target was a newspaper editor with whom he disagreed. After the editor succumbed to his injuries several months later, Landis was—shockingly—found not guilty by reason of temporary insanity, perhaps among the first uses of this defense in America.
“I’m writing about the bleakest things,” Kingsolver acknowledges. “As I see the two-sentence summaries of this book starting to come out, I say, ‘Who would want to read that?’”
Fans needn’t worry. As always, Kingsolver has worked hard to ensure that her novel is enjoyable. “That’s my contract with the reader.” Despite their immense struggles, these characters experience numerous comic, uplifting and revelatory moments.
One of the most magical parts of Unsheltered is how Kingsolver skillfully blends her two narratives into one unified tale, with past and present repeatedly mirroring each other. For instance, Willa stares at a portrait of Landis, studying the “famous autocrat, with his ruddy cheeks and odd flop of hair.” Years earlier, Mary Treat says of Landis: “The man is like his hero Phineas Barnum, with the gilded offices in Manhattan Island.”
“I really invested a lot of the craft and elbow grease—whatever you call hours in the chair—into making [the earlier] story fully as engaging as the modern story and making it feel seamless.” Kingsolver began writing in the fall of 2015 and finished in January 2017, the month of Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration. “While I was writing,” she says, “part of me thought this will be completely history by the time this novel is published, and no one will even remember this guy.” She calls the unexpected election results “bad for the world, good for the book.”
After the election, Kingsolver took stock of her almost-finished manuscript, saying, “I understood that this book that I had thought could be important was going to be important. It made me feel even more strongly that I wanted to get this book into the world.”
Author photo by Annie Griffiths.