'Unsheltered' by Barbara Kingsolver blends fact and fiction

'Unsheltered' by Barbara Kingsolver blends fact and fiction

"Unsheltered" (Harper), by Barbara Kingsolver

Barbara Kingsolver does something amazing in her new novel. She takes a historical figure — a naturalist who corresponded with Charles Darwin in the late 19th century — and imagines her life in Vineland, New Jersey, then creates fictional characters around her and concocts an entirely new family living in the same house in the modern day. The novel alternates eras from chapter to chapter and Kingsolver has a little writerly fun ending each chapter with the word(s) that name the next one.

That's not all the two stories have in common, of course. Uncovering and appreciating the connections is the best reason to read the book, but here's a teaser: Mary Treat is the naturalist whom Kingsolver brings to life. We first see her from afar, lying face down in her yard peering at something in the grass. Later, inside her home, she meets her neighbour and fellow Darwinist, Thatcher Greenwood, surrounded by tarantulas in glass jars as a Venus flytrap "eats" her finger. The 19th-century plot plays out with Thatcher, assisted behind the scenes by Mary, squaring off versus Vineland's pre-eminent Creationists, the town founder and the school principal where Thatcher teaches.

Meanwhile, the modern family is led by Willa, a laid-off journalist struggling to hold her family together after her son's partner kills herself, leaving Willa to take care of her grandson, her young adult daughter who just returned from a mysterious year in Cuba and her disabled father-in-law. As Kingsolver writes: "To please their beloveds, some women faked orgasm; Willa faked composure."

Both stories are compelling as Thatcher and Willa lead their families during dangerously uncertain times. Readers can decide for themselves if today's "America First" doctrine and the general erosion of civil discourse is on par with the theory of evolution challenging what it means to be human, but in a note to reviewers not included in the published novel, Kingsolver says the book is her attempt to show how families navigate through uncertainty, in all sorts of "brave, sweet and ridiculous ways."

Or in her peerless prose: "What I know for sure is that stories will get us through times of no leadership, better than leaders will get us through times with no stories."

With "Unsheltered," Kingsolver has created art that does exactly that. It is a novel well worth your time.

Rob Merrill, The Associated Press