Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver

This is the tale of a falling-down house providing the structure for two parallel stories set over a century apart and what shelter means for us now, in the past and in the future. Being written by Barbara Kingsolver it is also about a million other things, how we behave during a time of social upheaval, society’s safety net and our engagement with nature: identity, belonging, family and stability. It is also about women and mothering, particularly with daughters. So much is built on unstable foundations in this book.

In 2016 Willa and her husband are left a house in Vineland which they move to, only to find that it is in a dreadful state of repair but it is still a shelter. Iano, her husband, has a job at the local college -always on the lookout for tenure – and their daughter left Cuba where she was living and came home. Then her son’s wife committed suicide leaving behind a very young baby and so he moved into the family home too. To top it all off, she also has her father-in-law living with them who is dying and a racist, apt to shout his comments because he is deaf. The repairs to the house are too expensive to undertake so Willa sets off to see if there are any grants available to them.

Willa didn’t know what to say. Her heartbreak was for something well beyond the Gossamer Meadow. The fact that taking all the right turns had led her family to the wrong place, moneyless and a few storms away from homelessness.


And there we have it. How close are we all to disaster, especially in these times and despite doing all the right things.

In 1871 Thatcher Greenwood, ‘a name out of a novel’ (p324) a science teacher is living in the house with his wife Rose, her sister Polly and their mother Aurelia. Rose and family have come down inthe world after the death of their father and Thatcher has gone up in the world but unfortunately they have not met in the middle. The live in the same house that Willa and her family do and once again it is in need of repair and once again, the teacher does not earn enough money to see to the repairs.

Next door to the Greenwoods lives Mary Treat, a self-taught scientist, whose husband has left her which means that she can follow her studies of plants and animals to her hearts content. The first time Thatcher sees her she is lying on the floor peering through the grass. As the stories move forwards, more and more connections between the two are made, some subtley others not so.

Both stories are set in a time of social upheaval: in 2016 it is the run up and election of Trump, called The Bullhorn in the book, and in 1871 it is the introduction of Charles Darwin’s ideas of evolution. Vineland is a town ruled over by a landlord called Landis and the head of the school where Thatcher works is stuck in the belief that everything that happened on earth was by God’s design. If he can’t find an answer to questions asked of him, he just makes up the answer with reference to some part of the bible. Logic is not involved and I suppose, depending on the side you are on, you might think the same about the Trump times. As Mary Treat said,

‘When men fear the loss of what they know, they will follow any tyrant who promises to restore the old order.’


‘He reads next to nothing. It might interfere with his knowledge of the universe. . . . He says these difficult times in our shattered country call for a return to fundamentals.


The same, of course, could be said of Trump.

The two stories then weave in and out of each other with the third story, nature tumbling and entwining them both.

Kingsolver uses both devices and content to connect the stories. It took me while but eventually I noticed that a word or phrase used at the end of the chapter then becomes the heading for the next chapter, sometimes with the first sentence linking directly to the heading. This device bridges the two stories and gives us as a reader an insight into what might happen. Then there is the content overlap. A more obvious example is the way Iano holds his wife Willa as they look out of the windown into the garden next door. Thatcher and his wife Rose do exactly the same thing. Iano and Willa see their daughter lying on her back under a car fixing it. Thatcher and Rose see Mary Treat lying on the grass looking at insects.

Less obvious are those connects that are further distanced in the book. Mary Treat was lying on the floor watching ants. The ground is covered in ants as it is in Willa and Iano’s time. There are so many Tig and her boyfriend Jorge have to build a raised floor in their house to make space for them. The ants that Mary is watching are a particular type that don’t have babies of their own but go to a rival nest, kill the queen by licking her to death and taking them over, babies and all. This is mirrored in the present day story by Tig not having a baby of her own but taking over and becoming the mother of her brother’s baby, Dusty. She didn’t lick her brother to death to get him (!), they argued constantly, but it became quite clear early on that Zeke didn’t want to look after Dusty himself and assumed his mother would.

Through her choice of Darwin’s theories as the social upheaval in 1871, Kingsolver has foretold the disasters of 2016. At a public meeting in 1871 Cutler says’

‘On God’s authority! We were not put among creatures of this world to live with them as equals. This world is ours!


In current times, this way of thinking is what has got us into such difficulty with loss of species and resources and not seeing ourselves as an integral part of the planet. Here, Tig is the conscience of the family, reminding them that they can’t just have more and more ‘stuff’ and believes that Baby Boomers are too materialistic. Willa finds them all a little confusing.

From what planet came this new, slightly feral tribe of fixers, makers and barterers, she had no idea.


At the end Willa and Iano leave the house and live in a flat, having realised that they do not need a big house – that without shelter they live in daylight. I know that this is a good thing but we all need shelter for night time, for warmth so how do we live then? Tig and her boyfriend live in a ‘tiny house’ with Dusty and turn the land which the big house was built on into a garden to enjoy and grow food.

Kingsolver is definitely playing with names in this book and even commenting on it – see Thatcher Greenwood quote at the top of the post. She also likens some of the characters to plants. When discusing Guenevere, Willa says

‘Guenevere? You can’t be serious. Are women trying to give their children ridiculous names?’


Well Willa did, and by implication, so did the author.

Willa – strong willed

Iano – according to the Urban Dictionary, this name means this hot young man

Tig – short for Antigone from the greek classics by Sophocles. She is a devoted daughter and goes with her father when he is blinded into exile. She is outspoken, fights for what she believes in and is strong-willed.

Zeke – Ezekiel from the Hebrew and meaning God will strengthen or God’s strength. He was tall and followed the rites of his religion. He is the opposite of Tig, working for hedge funds and in finance and actively for capitalist greed and an open financial market. He was the character I liked the least.

Aurelia – meaning the golden one and the first name we have where the person is not like her name.

Aurelia was a cattleyia orchid: immoderately showy. Epiphytic by nature, rising above the common dirt.


Rose – named after the flower but prickly and thorny in her marriage to Thatcher.

Thatcher Greenwood – named by his mother when looking out of the window and seeing roofers working on the house over the road. This is part of what needed doing on the house he lived in with his wife and he couldn’t do it and live up to his name.

Selma – Mary’s maid and a ‘fuzzy little mullein’.

Mary Treat – a real person. Over the course of the book she and Thatcher become closer and closer until at the end you find that he will get his (Mary) Treat.

This is a book is about the loss of the American Dream.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *