Unsheltered: The Novel as Handmaiden to Politics

by Corrie McCloy

“I’m glad you decided to come here when you could, uh, be somewhere else,” Barbara Kingsolver says to her audience at the reading of her newest novel, Unsheltered.

The small crowd chuckles knowingly. This same night, October 29th, just a few miles away in the Toyota Center, Donald Trump is holding a rally for Senate Republican incumbent Ted Cruz. Several thousand fewer people are here to hear Kingsolver read from Unsheltered, a novel on American doubt: doubt in a country divided, doubt in a shattered economy, and doubt in a society suffering from what Kingsolver calls a “failure of generosity.” However, Unsheltered also raises doubt in its ability as a novel to provide insight on the recent political environment.

“My book is about the end of the world as we know it,” Kingsolver announces from the stage, and for the rest of the night, we learn both why the end has come and who the “we” is in her statement. Unsheltered tells the story of a white upper-class family facing an unstable future during the presidential campaign of 2016. Willa and Iano are in financial duress: “the glossy, award-winning magazine” Willa edited went broke, and the liberal arts college where  Iano was tenured has folded. Willa asks, “How could two hardworking people do everything right in life and arrive in their fifties essentially destitute?” (Kingsolver 11). Finances have forced them into the ancestral family home, an ennobled, historic mansion that is now falling apart. Of course, the decaying house represents the current decrepit political state of America. Everything represents the current decrepit political state of America.

Unsheltered begins with Willa escorting a contractor through their home: “The simplest thing would be to tear it down,” the contractor says (1). Willa, however, is fiercely protective of their home, run-down though it may be: “If it comes to it, we’ll put up yellow caution tape and avoid the collapsed areas. We’ll huddle in whatever is left… we don’t have anywhere else to go” (56).  Like a contractor of American society, Kingsolver observes the cracks in the foundation and diagnoses its weakness, but like Willa, Kingsolver is arguing that no matter how screwed America is, we don’t have anywhere else to go. We must adapt to current realities.

The run-down home also shelters three more adults—all liabilities. There is the racist Trump-supporting father-in-law, and his polar opposite, Tig, who dropped out of college to occupy Wall Street, study the ravage biosphere, and turn her straight hair into dreadlocks. The oldest son is particularly tragic: the rising star studied at Harvard Business only to turn up at home with $110,000 of college debt, a baby whose mother committed suicide, and little hope. He shouts at Willa, “Sometimes doing everything right gets you a big f*cking nothing! Did that ever occur to you?” (30).

Most Americans were raised with the belief that if you go to school and work hard, you can earn enough money to retire. But for Willa’s family, the American Dream is just that: a dream. Throughout the novel, Kingsolver hints at the causes of this failure—institutions, policies, and systems—but her interest is less in what failed than that it failed.

The conceit of the novel lies in a second family narrative that plays out in the same house (somehow even then falling apart) after the Civil War. Thatcher Greenwood is a young science teacher who is persuaded by Darwin’s theory—to the horror of the Transcendentalists in his community. For Kingsolver, Greenwood and his scientist neighbor Mary Treat exemplify the power of the dialectic. By engaging with new ideas, Americans begin to adapt like organisms evolving across the ages. Evolution, it turns out, also represents the current political state of America. Greenwood says to Treat, “You and I are not like other people,” and Treat replies, “When the nuisance of old mythologies falls away from us, we may see with new eyes” (89). An open mind to new ideas, Kingsolver says, is an American’s necessary modification to adapt to a changing environment. True though it may be, the too-obvious allegory begins to feel exclusionary; after all, who gets to decide what beliefs are outdated mythologies?

As inspiring as Kingsolver’s message is, her tone at times devolves into partisan moralizing, sluggish with self-righteousness. She plugs heavy-handed rhetoric into character’s mouths, as when Zeke blurts out: “Per capita GDP in the US has been pretty stagnant, Dad. You know that, right? Income used to be tied to productivity of the economy but that hasn’t been true since 1978. Actually it’s gone the other way since then. There’s different ways to chart it against inflation, but the median paycheck is definitely in decline” (68). Well, now we know. Kingsolver is so relentless in proving that the end of the world has come that her characters act like sociological affectations.

Unsheltered makes me doubt whether the novel is the proper arena to consciously address current political questions. Its immediacy to current events seems to blunt, rather than sharpen, its impact. In her article “Please, Margaret Atwood, Don’t Publish a Sequel to ‘A Handmaid’s Tale’” on Electric Literature, Carrie Mullins challenges the ability of even great novelists to consciously depict current politics. Mullins writes, “In writing a book that didn’t tie itself to a specific cultural instance, Atwood gave us a text that remains relevant outside of the time it was created.” Atwood’s challenge in writing a sequel is that she “risk[s] creating a work that is overt political commentary.” Kingsolver took such a risk, and I doubt whether her text will remain relevant after ten years.

Her commentary on Trump’s election is no more incisive than the intuitive concern anyone feels when reading the news. She refers to him exclusively as the “The Bullhorn,” a “terrifying” symptom of the “national tidal wave of self-interest” (436). As serious as these political questions may be, Kingsolver’s application feels like an exercise in self-indulgence. When she speaks of the “end of the world as we know it,” she is speaking of the “we” of people like her: sophisticated, upper-class, white liberals who are shocked by the revelation that everybody doesn’t get the happy ending they were promised.

Nevertheless, Kingsolver’s optimism remains: she challenges the crowd to address their prejudice and choose hope in the face of doubt: “Hope is a not a trait,” she says. “It’s a decision.” For her, engaging with the other means building friendships with the Appalachian “hillbillies” in her community. She shares their perspective with us Houstonians, how her neighbors voted for Trump because they feel left out of the American conversation, because they doubt that the new America is made for them. They’re loyal and committed to her, even though they know she believes differently from them: “When I broke my leg, they all brought me casseroles.”

At the end of the reading is an opportunity for questions. The last question of the night was from an African-American woman, about the same age as Barbara Kingsolver. Her voice hushed the crowds, previously rustling as they prepared to leave: “I’ve been in involved in desegregation for thirty years. I’ve desegregated schools and corporations. Churches are the least desegregated public space in America today. I’ve been spit on and called n*gger. But I’ve invited myself into those spaces. I’m courteous. I’m bold. Tonight you’ve told us to reach across the cultural divide, to be empathetic. You need to go home and have that conversation with your neighbors too. Tell them to be empathetic too.”

We clapped. Kingsolver fumbled for words. She thanked the woman for her courage added, too quickly, “And I do—I do have that conversation with my neighbors.”

No doubt Kingsolver does try to have such conversations with her neighbors, but that brief exchange, between audience and stage, was enough to show that healing the cultural divide requires more than simply a call for empathy. The incident was enough to reveal the false note in Unsheltered: although  Kingsolver and her characters only began feeling vulnerable in 2016, for many individuals, this environment of doubt and vulnerability is normal—par for the course for life in America. In the presence of that desegregationist’s boldness, the novel’s tone shifted from grave prognostics of the world’s end to the naïve dismay of privilege unseated.

We don’t just doubt America or the American dream. We doubt that our neighbors will stand up for us—and for many too Americans, that doubt is justified.

Corrie McCloy is a Writing and English major at HBU; she loves well-made guacamole and each of her sixteen nieces and nephews.

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