Tackling a new book always begins in the same way for Barbara Kingsolver: “a burning question that I can’t not write about.” The question that spawned her forthcoming Unsheltered (HarperCollins, Oct.) was one Kingsolver contemplated for some five years. “I saw what looked to me like a world falling apart in terms of civil discourse, economic security, and the environment. The things we always trusted in were crumbling away,” she says. “Of course a novel has to be about people, so the question is, what do we do when it looks like we are facing the end of the world?”
To explore such a response to uncertainty, Kingsolver mines past and present, alternating chapters between two centuries united by one location, the corner of Sixth and Plum in Vineland, N.J. “How do we behave? Are there principles? And if so, wouldn’t it be interesting to look at earlier times and people’s best efforts to cope in the world around them?” she asks. History is rife with examples of a sky-is-falling mentality, and Kingsolver wanted to examine one of these moments up close.
In Kingsolver’s story, a former magazine editor, Willa Knox finds herself at middle age without a job, with an equally unemployed husband, a stack of unpaid bills, a wayward son and his unplanned baby, and a cantankerous father-in-law, all under the roof of a dilapidated house that is literally falling apart. Desperate, Willa begins to explore the history of the house, hoping that the historical preservation society will take an interest and help with repairs.
Her research uncovers a kindred spirit from the 1880s, Thatcher Greenwood, who lived in the house when it was elegant, new, but structurally unsound. Greenwood is a science teacher who is under siege by school officials and the community for wanting to teach Darwin’s new theories and is forbidden to do so. By mingling modern-day anxieties and fears with those of the Darwin-upended 19th century, Kingsolver illuminates life amid cultural upheaval.
Beyond the structural challenge of weaving together two disparate time periods, there was also the matter of maintaining separate voices throughout the book. For half of it “the language, tone, and sound had to be authentically 19th century,” Kingsolver notes, so she immersed herself in fiction of the age, in particular George Eliot’s Middlemarch, which sat on her desk as a reference manual during the two years it took her to research and write the book.
Like Kingsolver’s other works, including The Poisonwood Bible and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, community propels the narrative of Unsheltered. “It’s just my worldview, I suppose. Sense of place is deliberate, and that’s my duty as a good writer. If you make up a place, it’s a lie on the page.”