Nonfiction writers began publishing books about Donald Trump even before Sean Spicer could start lying for him. Fiction writers, though, have been slower to incorporate the Mogul into their work. That stands to reason. After all, novels are lumbering beasts next to fleet-footed books of political nonfiction. And besides, many fiction writers are wary of dating their stories with contemporary details. Only a few intrepid novelists — including Salman Rushdie, Gary Shteyngart and Meg Wolitzer — have nodded toward the upset election of the reality-TV star who promised to make America great again.
Enough with the glancing references and coy allusions. Here comes the first major novel to tackle the Trump era straight on and place it in the larger chronicle of existential threats. Donald Trump’s name doesn’t appear in Barbara Kingsolver’s “Unsheltered,” but the president prowls all through these pages. He’s “the Bullhorn,” “the tyrant who promises to restore the old order,” the “billionaire running for president who’s never lifted a finger,” the candidate who brags that “he could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and people would still vote for him.” He’s the animal spirit of a political movement that’s draining the middle class, breaking the joists of civil society and pushing the planet toward ecological calamity.
That may sound like the makings of a deadly polemical novel, a strident op-ed stretched out for more than 450 pages. But “Unsheltered” is not that — or it’s not just that — largely because Kingsolver has constructed this book as two interlaced stories, separated by more than a century. Her alternating structure suggests that Trump is not unique but merely the latest outbreak of a virus that periodically infects America.
The contemporary story in “Unsheltered” offers a collage of Democratic talking points acted out in the lives of a middle-class family slipping down the ladder of success. The heroine, Willa Knox, is a freelance journalist burdened with the care of her baby grandson and her right-wing father-in-law. As the novel opens, this extended family has just moved to Vineland, N.J., into a collapsing house that serves as their precarious shelter and a very sturdy metaphor. Willa and her husband, a college professor, worked hard their entire lives but are now close enough to retirement to realize that no retirement awaits them. Upheavals in publishing and higher education have knocked their income back to starting-level salaries. “It’s like the rules don’t apply anymore,” Willa says. “Or we learned one set, and then somebody switched them out.” The absurd mess of American health insurance confounds every effort to get Willa’s father-in-law the care he needs. Her brilliant son is hobbled by more than $100,000 in student loans. And, meanwhile, her daughter has become a dumpster-diving Cassandra, convinced that modern capitalism is warming the planet toward incineration.
If those details aren’t sufficiently indicative of what ails America, these characters often look directly into the camera and say things like, “Per capita GDP in the US has been pretty stagnant, Dad. You know that, right? Income used to be tied to productivity of the economy but that hasn’t been true since 1978. Actually it’s gone the other way since then. There’s different ways to chart it against inflation, but the median paycheck is definitely in decline.”
Although Willa and her family are certainly sympathetic characters, there’s something a little claustrophobic about being confined within these axioms of liberal orthodoxy. I’m in perfect agreement with every position Kingsolver advocates, but when does one dare object to the heavy hand of editorial determinism? First they came for the subtlety . . . Then they came for the element of surprise. . . . Only late in the novel do some of these characters seem to break free from their thematic function and begin to consider in more conflicted and nuanced ways a life outside the capitalist furnace of consumption.
Ironically, the alternate chapters of “Unsheltered,” set in the 1870s, are fresher and more rewarding. In hopes of earning a historical preservation grant for her crumbling house, Willa begins to research its earliest inhabitants. At this point, Kingsolver takes us back to the origins of Vineland, an actual utopian community founded by Charles Landis, a Trumpian real estate developer who really did shoot someone and get away with it. Among the citizens of Vineland was Mary Treat, a self-taught naturalist who corresponded with Charles Darwin and supported herself as a science writer. Kingsolver brings Treat to life in all her impressive brilliance and delightful eccentricity. When we first see her, she’s lying on the ground next to her house observing ants. Later, she sits for hours with her finger in a Venus' flytrap hoping to inspect its effect on human flesh.
“Unsheltered” re-creates this post-Civil War period with wonderful fidelity to the tenor of the era: its genteel manners wrapped around vicious bigotry, its absurd expectations for women, and especially its clashing convictions about God, science and humanity. When Mary complains, “We try to reason with one another, but only manage to tear ourselves apart,” it’s impossible not to reflect on our own contentious moment.
Within this historical framework, these chapters focus on Thatcher Greenwood, a fictional character who has moved to Vineland to teach science at the free secondary school. He quickly befriends his impressive neighbor, Mary, and feels inspired by her intellectual curiosity and her disregard for the regard of society. But like Willa far in the future, he’s saddled with the demands of a multigenerational family, a precarious income and a collapsing house. And, again like Willa, he’s trying to survive in a violently fracturing culture. The Civil War has left America craving nostalgia and spiritualism, while new social attitudes and scientific discoveries threaten to shatter every cherished ideal.
All those national tensions come into play when Thatcher finds himself accused of corrupting students with Darwin’s theory of evolution. Among the novel’s wittiest sections is a public debate with the pompous headmaster — a kind of early version of the Scopes Trial. Thatcher, the idealistic teacher and faithful husband, is torn between his responsibilities for his family and his commitment to the principles of scientific inquiry. Will he lose his wife’s devotion or Mary’s respect?
Traveling side by side, 140 years apart, these alternating stories about Willa and Thatcher maintain their distinctive tones but echo one another in curious, provocative ways. Kingsolver suggests that it’s never been easy to find oneself unsheltered, cast out from the comforts of old beliefs about how the world works. If there’s any spark of optimism in this grim prognosis for our survival, it’s implied by the novel’s parallel structure: We’ve adapted before. With a little creative thinking and courage, we might do so again.
Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.
By Barbara Kingsolver
Harper. 480 pp. $29.99.