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Unsheltered – Barbara Kingsolver

Image of the cover of Unsheltered

Unsheltered – Barbara Kingsolver

I have had a mixed response to Barbara Kingsolver. Some of her work I have loved – The Poisonwood BibleFlight Behaviour and others (The Lacuna) so much. However, I have never thought any were so bad I couldn’t read her anymore. So I was keen to read this one.

Here’s the blurb …

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.

Willa Knox has always prided herself on being the embodiment of responsibility for her family. Which is why it’s so unnerving that she’s arrived at middle age with nothing to show for her hard work and dedication but a stack of unpaid bills and an inherited brick home in Vineland, New Jersey, that is literally falling apart. The magazine where she worked has folded, and the college where her husband had tenure has closed. The dilapidated house is also home to her ailing and cantankerous Greek father-in-law and her two grown children: her stubborn, free-spirited daughter, Tig, and her dutiful debt-ridden, ivy educated son, Zeke, who has arrived with his unplanned baby in the wake of a life-shattering development.

In an act of desperation, Willa begins to investigate the history of her home, hoping that the local historical preservation society might take an interest and provide funding for its direly needed repairs. Through her research into Vineland’s past and its creation as a Utopian community, she discovers a kindred spirit from the 1880s, Thatcher Greenwood.

A science teacher with a lifelong passion for honest investigation, Thatcher finds himself under siege in his community for telling the truth: his employer forbids him to speak of the exciting new theory recently published by Charles Darwin. Thatcher’s friendships with a brilliant woman scientist and a renegade newspaper editor draw him into a vendetta with the town’s most powerful men. At home, his new wife and status-conscious mother-in-law bristle at the risk of scandal, and dismiss his financial worries and the news that their elegant house is structurally unsound.

Brilliantly executed and compulsively listenable, Unsheltered is the story of two families, in two centuries, who live at the corner of Sixth and Plum, as they navigate the challenges of surviving a world in the throes of major cultural shifts. In this mesmerizing story told in alternating chapters, Willa and Thatcher come to realize that though the future is uncertain, even unnerving, shelter can be found in the bonds of kindred—whether family or friends—and in the strength of the human spirit.

At first I was compelled. I loved both of the narrative strands. In the middle I got a bit stuck – the stories were sad and seemingly hopeless, but I pushed on and I am glad that I did because it ended strongly and with a hopeful positive feeling.

You can listen to Barbara Kingsolver talking about it on the BBC Radio 4 Books and Authors podcast.

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Flight Behavior – Barbara Kingsolver

Flight Behaviour - Barbara Kingsolver

Flight Behaviour – Barbara Kingsolver

I have read quite a few of Ms Kingsolver’s books. I particularly liked The Poisonwood Bible. This was a Christmas present – I might have suggested it – here is the blurb …

Flight Behavior transfixes from its opening scene, when a young woman’s narrow experience of life is thrown wide with the force of a raging fire. In the lyrical language of her native Appalachia, Barbara Kingsolver bares the rich, tarnished humanity of her novel’s inhabitants and unearths the modern complexities of rural existence. Characters and reader alike are quickly carried beyond familiar territory here, into the unsettled ground of science, faith, and everyday truces between reason and conviction.

Dellarobia Turnbow is a restless farm wife who gave up her own plans when she accidentally became pregnant at seventeen. Now, after a decade of domestic disharmony on a failing farm, she has settled for permanent disappointment but seeks momentary escape through an obsessive flirtation with a younger man. As she hikes up a mountain road behind her house to a secret tryst, but instead encounters a shocking sight: a silent, forested valley filled with what looks like a lake of fire. She can only understand it as a cautionary miracle, but it sparks a raft of other explanations from scientists, religious leaders and the media. The bewildering emergency draws rural farmers into unexpected acquaintance with urbane journalists, opportunists, sightseers, and a striking biologist with his own stake in the outcome. As the community lines up to judge the woman and her miracle, Dellarobia confronts her family, her church, her town and a larger world, in a flight toward truth that could undo all she has ever believed.

Flight Behavior takes on one of the most contentious subjects of our time: climate change. With a deft and versatile empathy she dissects the motives that drive denial and belief in a precarious world.

First, how brave to write a novel with a major theme of global warming (or global weirding as one of the characters says). The characters are well-written, but unsympathetic – this is small town America and not the heart warming uplifting romantic view of it. Times are incredibly tough – Dellarobia has $50 to produce Christmas (all of Christmas). The educational system seems to have failed her completely – she seems to have no science of mathematical knowledge.  The plight of the Monarchs was beautifully portrayed and there was hope in the end that they might survive. Dellarobia would also survive and I suspect thrive, but I worry about Cub (and all of the Cubs) his life was hard and he didn’t seem to expect or hope of plan for anything else. He hand his dad, Bear, would have logged the forest for a quick return with no thought to the future and I think that is the fundamental problem facing conservationists. Those trees are their only asset. They can barely afford to feed and clothe their families.

I enjoyed reading this novel and it made me think about climate change. I thought about all of the cheap plastic stuff that is floating around the world. How we all (in the western world)  have too much stuff. Having said that I’m not sure what the solution is.

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