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Unsheltered: A Novel
by Barbara Kingsolver

Published: 2018-10-16
Kindle Edition : 480 pages
18 members reading this now
96 clubs reading this now
6 members have read this book
Recommended to book clubs by 2 of 2 members

New York Times bestseller

An NPR pick for Best Books of 2018

An O, The Oprah Magazine's Best Book of 2018

A San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of 2018

One of Christian Science Monitor's best fiction reads of 2018

One of Newsweek's Best Books of the year

The New York Times bestselling author of ...

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Introduction

New York Times bestseller

An NPR pick for Best Books of 2018

An O, The Oprah Magazine's Best Book of 2018

A San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of 2018

One of Christian Science Monitor's best fiction reads of 2018

One of Newsweek's Best Books of the year

The New York Times bestselling author of Flight Behavior, The Lacuna, and The Poisonwood Bible and recipient of numerous literary awards—including the National Humanities Medal, the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, and the Orange Prize—returns with a timely novel that interweaves past and present to explore the human capacity for resiliency and compassion in times of great upheaval.

How could two hardworking people do everything right in life, a woman asks, and end up destitute? Willa Knox and her husband followed all the rules as responsible parents and professionals, and have nothing to show for it but debts and an inherited brick house that is falling apart. The magazine where Willa worked has folded; the college where her husband had tenure has closed. Their dubious shelter is also the only option for a disabled father-in-law and an exasperating, free-spirited daughter. When the family’s one success story, an Ivy-educated son, is uprooted by tragedy he seems likely to join them, with dark complications of his own.

In another time, a troubled husband and public servant asks, How can a man tell the truth, and be reviled for it? A science teacher with a passion for honest investigation, Thatcher Greenwood finds himself under siege: his employer forbids him to speak of the exciting work just published by Charles Darwin. His young bride and social-climbing mother-in-law bristle at the risk of scandal, and dismiss his worries that their elegant house is unsound. In a village ostensibly founded as a benevolent Utopia, Thatcher wants only to honor his duties, but his friendships with a woman scientist and a renegade newspaper editor threaten to draw him into a vendetta with the town’s powerful men.

Unsheltered is the compulsively readable story of two families, in two centuries, who live at the corner of Sixth and Plum in Vineland, New Jersey, navigating what seems to be the end of the world as they know it. With history as their tantalizing canvas, these characters paint a startlingly relevant portrait of life in precarious times when the foundations of the past have failed to prepare us for the future.

Editorial Review

An Amazon Best Book of October 2018: In her insightful and politically charged new novel, Barbara Kingsolver finds deep resonances between the Victorian era’s attitudes towards science, and our own. Unsheltered begins on the eve of the 2016 presidential election, when Willa, a freelance journalist whose family has fallen on hard times, discovers that the house they’ve moved into has a “nonexistent foundation.” Hoping to enlist restoration help from a historical society, Willa traces the origins of the house to Thatcher Greenwood, a science teacher who lived there in the 1870s, and his neighbor, a real-life woman biologist named Mary Treat, whose research supported Charles Darwin’s theory of the origin of species. Just as Darwin’s theory challenged the Victorian belief in the Judeo-Christian creation myth, so too, in Willa’s era, does global warming challenge prevailing myths about the future of civilization. Kingsolver, whose 1998 novel The Poisonwood Bible was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, carries off this cleverly structured dual narrative with aplomb and with a certain degree of rage at charismatic politicians, both past and present, whose disregard for science puts humanity in peril. –Sarah Harrison Smith, Amazon Book Review

Excerpt

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Discussion Questions

1. What do the living spaces in their various conditions throughout the novel suggest about the people living in them? Figuratively speaking, which foundations turn out to be solid, or precarious?

2. Mary Treat tells Thatcher that to be unsheltered is to live in daylight. What does she mean? What kinds of shelter do these characters crave, in their different centuries? How might sheltered lives—or the craving for them—become a hindrance?

3. Which of the many challenges confronting Willa are hers alone to bear, and why? What do you see as the foundation of her successful relationship with Iano? How has marriage changed, or not changed, since the time of Rose and Thatcher?

4. Why do you think happy marriages so rarely appear in fiction?

5. In what ways, if any, do you find Nick’s bigotry and anger comprehensible? What accounts for Tig’s patience with him, despite their differences? How do the family’s conflicts relate to the polarization of present times? What’s suggested by Willa’s and Nick’s argument taking place on the Walt Whitman Bridge?

6. How are Mary Treat’s eccentricities related to her strengths? In what ways is her friendship especially valuable to Thatcher? What is the role of the scientist in times of social upheaval?

7. What are some of the"old mythologies" discussed by Mary and Thatcher, to which people cling for comfort even when they’re no longer true? Are any of these still popular in the modern era?

8. Mary tells Thatcher she is "astonished at how little most people can manage to see." Specifically, which realities in her century, and ours, do people find it difficult to see? What are the costs? Is it possible to view ourselves objectively in our own time?

9. When Thatcher sees the world "divided in two camps, the investigators and the sweeteners," what is he observing? Which of the novel’s characters are the former, and which are the latter? Where would you place yourself?

10. Consider the creative names and botanical character identities throughout the novel. What do they reveal? How have the various characters’ education or backgrounds shaped their perspectives? Why do you think a select few of them are able to think outside of what Tig calls "the cardboard box," or Mary, "the pumpkin shell?"

11. What family dynamics might have made Tig and Zeke so different and combative, while Jorge and his siblings are close and supportive?

12. How do the characters in two centuries variously understand and connect with the natural world? When Willa’s phone causes "thousands of birds [to burst] from their tree skyward like a house going up in smoke," what does this potent image suggest? What about the ants that seem to inhabit the neighborhood outside the boundaries of time?

13. When Willa complains that "the rules don’t apply anymore," what does she mean? How are Zeke and Tig preparing differently for a future in which they will have less than their parents? Did the novel move you to any new insights about generational difference?

14. How does the powerful experience of loss affect this novel’s characters, at personal and societal levels? Is the nature of grief constant across human experience? How might "the loss of what they know" influence people’s political behavior?

15. The novel’s epigraph quotes a Wallace Stevens poem,"The Well Dressed Man with a Beard." How does the epigraph relate to the novel, and how might Christopher Hawk (a well-dressed man with a beard) serve as its pivot point? Why do you think the author chose to set the story in two different centuries? And why these two in particular?

16. In shifting between chapters, what changes did you notice in the characters’ language, or the narrative tone? In what ways did you find the two separate narratives connected?

17. What is the "precise balance of terror and mollycoddling" that Charles Landis manages? How, when, and why do you think people respond to this leadership style?

18. The shooting of Uri Carruth by Charles Landis, and subsequent not-guilty verdict, are actual historical events. Is the anecdote relevant to the present? What is the role of journalism in a healthy society? Who is responsible for its integrity?

19. As they shift from parent-child to a more adult relationship, what does Willa learn from her daughter? How might "the secret of happiness" be "low expectations?" How does this relate to the lost-and-found quote about happiness from Willa Cather’s My Àntonia?

20. Thatcher settles finally on seeing Mary Treat as "a giant redwood: oldest and youngest of all living things, the tree that stood past one eon into the next." Do you agree?

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

No notes at this time.

Book Club Recommendations

Member Reviews

Overall rating:
 
 
  "well written and researched"by jcjwalbye (see profile) 01/28/20

our book club gave an average rating of 7 out of 10. not liked as well as other Barbara Kingsolver books

 
by corron2 (see profile) 10/02/19

 
by Jonzin2go (see profile) 09/01/19

 
by Jeanfdeluca (see profile) 03/23/19

 
by merrybee (see profile) 03/15/19

 
by Karoly (see profile) 03/09/19

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