Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver: Review

Excerpt from Chapter Three:

‘Tig rolled her eyes. “Humans have outgrown the carrying capacity of the planet. The responsible thing would be to shrink our bottom line.”

“Hey, gee, we tried that! For five centuries before the Industrial Revolution. It was called the Dark Ages.”

“That’s true,” Iano said. “You can’t really have civilization without growth. It would be a zero-sum economy: I have needs, everyone has needs, and the only way to gain something is to take it away from you.”

“Dope scenario, Dad,” Tig said, “only the world is zero-sum. When you’re taking stuff out of the land and ocean, that’s taking. You’re just pretending there’s always going to be more, which there isn’t.”

“When you plot low-growth periods in history,” Iano said, “you see Hitler and you see Genghis Khan.”

“Plot it any way you want. I’m not choosing this. I just lucked into the moment in history when your folklore about permanent expansion goes down the toilet.”

Willa wondered how many tuition dollars they’d invested in this conversation, and whether they could get a refund; she wished they would all just shut up and eat.’

This book is about two families living 150 or so years apart, on the same plot of land, in a crumbling house. As you might guess from the excerpt above, their house, built without adequate foundations, acts as a handy metaphor for the lack of groundedness of the economy and its resulting inability to adapt to environmental limits. To make matters worse, both families have other instabilities to contend with as well, including job insecurity and financial worries.

A big theme of the book is how science can get blocked out by fear – the kind of fear that strikes when the things that people have been encouraged to base their lives on suddenly crumble to dust. It’s also the kind of fear that can lead people to vote for racist, misogynist, anti-environmental demagogues.

In the 19th century part, a man who resembles Trump in many ways (although he’s only a mayor) shoots dead a dissident journalist and gets away with it by pleading insanity. He was actually based on a real person, and the incident was real too. The main character in that part of the book courageously defends the journalist who was shot, but his wife and mother-in-law are blindly loyal to the murderer. We’re told that they’re looking for ‘rescue’ rather than truth.

The 19th century part is set at the time when Darwin’s writing first appeared. While Darwin doesn’t appear as a character, one of his real-life correspondents does and there’s a lot of discussion about how his work subverted some of the assumed ‘natural’ hierarchies of the time – and how destabilizing this was for a lot of people.

The modern-day part is particularly focussed on the relationship between a mother (Willa) and daughter (Tig), with Willa gradually coming to recognise – and begin to rectify – some important mistakes she’d made as a parent, and Tig maturing into a potential parent (though not in the biological sense – becoming pregnant would be naively optimistic from her point of view). I enjoyed reading about this evolving relationship. It would have been fun to get a clearer idea of how the other family members were affected by it.

At first, Tig (short for Antigone) is abrasive and resentful towards her parents and brother, but she nonetheless manages to muster up far more compassion towards her bigoted, dying grandfather than her mother can. I was very moved by an episode where she convinces her mother to lie to him about where he’ll be buried, so that he believes his (unaffordable) wishes will be observed.

It’s an interesting variation on the Antigone story in Greek mythology. (That Antigone gets herself into trouble by insisting on a proper burial for her dead brother, even though her brother could never know about it.)

It’s pretty hard to tell whether Tig’s own brother, Zeke, has a meaningful future ahead of him; indeed, it seems that he may well use his brilliance to bury himself alive in a pile of greenwashed carbon credits. There are a few zingy conversations between the siblings that are fun to read in some ways, but painful in others. (For a little while after reading the book I did wonder whether in the real world, smart parents like Willa and Iano would fail to notice for so long just how badly out of whack the relationship was between their children. But I’ve come to the conclusion, after a bit of thought, that yes, it’s entirely possible.)

Eventually, the fate of Willa’s house is determined in a way that I found very satisfying. I also loved the shelter that Tig eventually recreates, and the way that the book is liberally salted with characteristic Kingsolver humour. But I’d say there could have been a lot more discussion about access to energy. It’s all very well to be able to fix up old cars, but what if there’s no petrol?

I also think that the only way to be sure that all the wonderful grassroots ecological stuff that we see in the modern-day part of the book won’t simply be swept away overnight by some demagogue or other is to put at least part of one’s energy into trying to engage with those who find the grassroots stuff threatening. Despite some insightful reflections towards the end of the book on child psychology, and a strong emphasis throughout the book on the role of fear, I think it misses a trick by not really exploring the roots of that fear in depth.

There’s always a danger of slipping into complacency. In the book, truth is set against rescue in a way that seems artificial to me. In order to get anywhere near truth, most of us – if not all – need to feel reasonably safe first, and there’s no overt acknowledgement of that. Instead, we’re presented with a world of brave scientific explorers who appear to be endowed with genes that enable them to constantly question orthodoxy (and to sleep in a tree almost for two weeks without suffering any ill effects), and the rest of humanity, who are stubbornly clinging to their misguided beliefs and lurching blindly from one crisis to the next. This simultaneously exaggerates the ability of the scientists to remain clear-headed and objective at all times and the irrationality of everyone else. So it’s another kind of tribalism – or to put it in the book’s terms, another kind of ungrounded and unreliable shelter.

In case that sounds harsh: I liked this book so much that I reread it immediately after finishing it, which is something I haven’t done in years. Perhaps another book of Kingsolver’s, in the future, will go further in exploring the relationship between rescue and truth. Meanwhile, even if this book doesn’t offer trustworthy shelter, it still offers some wholesome and delicious intellectual nutrition – which is just as important for survival.

Featured image: Photo by Barthelemy de Mazenod on Unsplash

Note: Feasta is a forum for exchanging ideas. By posting on its site Feasta agrees that the ideas expressed by authors are worthy of consideration. However, there is no one ‘Feasta line’. The views of the article do not necessarily represent the views of all Feasta members.