American houses built on sand

Barbara Kingsolver shows that without truth, foundations crumble.

“Your foundation is nonexis­tent,” the contractor tells Willa Knox. He is speaking about the house she has inherited from a recently deceased aunt, but he could just as well be describing her life. In her midfifties, Willa has lost her job as a magazine journalist. Her husband, Iano, formerly a tenured professor at a college that shut down for financial reasons, is about to begin a poorly paid, one-year teaching appointment. The crumbling house is also home to Iano’s ailing father, Nick. Hearing impaired and argumentative, Nick incessantly listens to right-wing radio at full volume. It is late summer 2015, and a billionaire that Willa calls “the Bullhorn” is vying for the Repub­lican presidential nomination. Nick loves the Bullhorn’s crude racist comments. Willa can’t stand either the Bullhorn or Nick.

There’s nothing subtle about Barbara Kingsolver’s message: when the rains descend and the winds blow, a house built on sand will fall. A scientist by training and the author of seven other novels, Kingsolver consistently preaches that truth is the only secure foundation for a healthy society. When anything—fundamentalism, politics, greed, denial—obstructs truth, calamity follows; and aversion to truth, she believes, is a long-standing American tradition. While the odd-numbered chapters of Unsheltered tell Willa’s story, the even-numbered chapters are set in late summer 1874: same town (Vineland, New Jersey), same location (near the corner of Sixth and Plum), similar problems.

A contractor delivers bad news to Thatcher Greenwood. The house he lives in, inherited by his mother-in-law from her late husband, was built by unskilled amateurs. “It will eventually pull itself apart down the middle,” the contractor warns. Fortunately, That­cher’s prospects look good. He has been hired to teach science at Vineland’s newly constructed high school. Though rebuilding a decaying house is well beyond his means, he can move his family to more suitable housing. But his wife and mother-in-law refuse to leave their family home, and Thatcher’s job is threatened when his lectures on Darwin clash with the school principal’s religious convictions.