By Barbara Kingsolver
Things have not been going well for the Knox family. Willa, a middle aged journalist, has been let go from her job, right after her husband lost his teaching job. Her gravely ill father in law has been put into their care, their 26 year old daughter has moved back home, and they just found out their golden boy son is moving back in as well, with an unplanned one month old baby. Good thing Willa just inherited a brick home in Vineland, New Jersey. With the whole family settled in their new home, unfortunately, their lives do not get better. The old home they’ve inherited was built without a foundation and is literally crumbling around them. Willa did everything expected of her: post-secondary, career, marriage, kids… so how did she get to middle age with nothing to show for it?
Hoping to apply for a heritage grant to repair her new home, Willa begins researching her home’s past. As Willa gets immersed in the lives of the people who might have lived in her house, the story begins alternating perspectives from Willa’s life in 2016, to the life of a science teacher from the 1880s named Thatcher Greenwood.
Thatcher forms a friendship with the famous naturalist, Mary Treat, a friend of Charles Darwin and Asa Gray. Mary Treat clearly has a vast intellect and a curiosity about the natural world that is both infectious and intriguing. Discussions about Venus fly traps, nesting habits of local spiders, and cultural dynamics of ants were oddly engrossing.
Both stories tangle with each other nicely. Both Thatcher and Willa lived in a time of cultural shifts; experiencing their interaction with this change was very interesting. At times I was more eager for Thatcher’s story than Willa’s, but then something would happen in Willa’s story that had me desperate to get back to 2016!
Unsheltered reminded me of the novel Commonwealth by Ann Patchett because of the jumping timeline. Parts of this book also made me think of the plight of the grandfather in Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry. Both characters are clearly beholden to their families with very little control over their lives.