The Unsheltered Search for truth

by Barbara Kingsolver

It is a pleasure to read a novel by Barbara Kingsolver right after reading one by Toni Morrison. Both are outstanding novelists, but they are different from each other. As I have said before, Morrison’s novels are difficult. You really have to work at them, but the rewards for doing are immense. With Kingsolver, reading is effortless. You can breeze through her books, but that does not mean the book is an “easy read.” It is and it isn’t.

I recommend you take things slowly. I am a meanderer. Even when I read, I meander through the book. That means I have to go back to the beginning or somewhere else earlier in the book. With Kingsolver that is also worth the trip.

I recently read her book Unsheltered. It is a story about 2 families more than a century apart with a strange connection. The connection is a ramshackle old house in Vineland New Jersey that is about to fall apart and crumble into oblivion because of an unsound foundation. It just takes a century or more to do that. Is she trying to say something about America?

The book is about more than that however. It is about a search for truth and the importance of summoning the courage to speak that truth. The Thatchers are the first of the families to occupy the house. They do so in the late 19th century. Thatcher Greenwood is a science teacher at school and “he felt his soul touched by light.” Thatcher thought, “an active mind should be fed the meat of the world…wonderments, of any kind that compel her. Things that are real.” He saw “the world divided in two camps, the investigators and the sweeteners.” Sadly, his lovely wife is on the side of sweetness while he is searching for truth and that gets him into trouble. The truth is not always sweet, no matter how we wish it were.

The second family to occupy the house has done everything right but is assailed by bad luck. It is led—well sort of led—by the matriarch Willa Knox a magazine journalist out of work because the magazine has folded. Similarly her husband, Iano is a lecturer at a small college that has also folded. This family is floundering in its dubious shelter about to collapse. But the family has a steady and surprising rock, the daughter Tig, fittingly named after a Greek tragedy, Antigone, but amazingly resilient. Her name means “worthy of her parents” and that she is. She is the unlikely solid foundation of the novel.

Thatcher is a teacher who is enthralled with the new ideas of Charles Darwin but is forbidden by his principal from teaching them. How can he get in trouble by seeking and speaking the truth? He will lose his job if he does not renounce those ideas. Thatcher knows “we are often persuaded that what is convenient is also right.” He also knows that this is the enemy of truth seeking. As Nietzsche said, desire is the enemy of truth.

Thatcher knows that to his students “Science was a bewilderment they approached with fixed expressions of disbelief, the young ladies adding to this sulkiness owned by their gender, peering up at teacher from under an eave of curled fringe.” How can he abandon his charges?

He is trying to get his students to see what is not visible. It must be inferred. His students are dubious. He holds up a bottle that contains a gas, but his students are sceptical because they can’t see it. Yet one male student admits that we can’t see it “but we smell it sure. When my pa passes gas you’ll know in the next room. Specially if he’s been at the liver and onions.” This wisdom came from Willis Chester who looked startled when his classmates burst into laughter.” While Chester is wise, his Principal, Mr. Cutler, is not and Thatcher must deal with that. He knows it is a horrible task. “Thatcher wondered what task could be more wearisome than shoring up a stupid man’s confidence in his own wisdom?”

Thatcher wants to treat his students to the wonders of the scientific method. “We study unseen particles by observing their effects. Discovery comes from the small increments of weight and measurement we call data, providing answers to questions we have carefully framed.”

The poor students have a brilliant teacher saddled with a dead-beat Principal Mr.Cutler  who gets his science from the Bible. “Experiments alarm him. Modern scientific theory enrages him, discussion of Darwin particularly, but not only this. The suggestion of taking students outdoors to study nature, he treats as blasphemy.” Reminding me of the current President of the United States, Cutler, “reads nothing. It might interfere with his knowledge of the universe.” Cutler  instead holds, “to answer all his questions, using scripture bent back on itself like a fish hook.”

Thatcher is aided by his neighbour, a brilliant scientist, Mary Treat, who explains that humans are often blinded by fear of the new ideas. “A humanity derived from the plain stuff of earth frightens them even more…Presumptions of a lifetime are perilous things to overturn.” Mary gives Thatcher a very difficult task: “Your charge is to lead them out of doors to see evidence for themselves, and not to fear it. To stand in the clear light of day, you once said, unsheltered.”

It is not easy to stand up to a mob. Even a mob dressed in proper clothes like attendees at a school debate. With clear echoing of modern events, where another mob in another place, shouted in front of a modern demagogue, Thatcher says,

“I wonder what service is possible, Mary.  When half the world, with no understanding of Darwin at all, will rally around whoever calls him a criminal and wants him hanged.

She said nothing to this. But it was no exaggeration: the crude effigy dangling from a noose, the monkey’s tail pinned to the stuffed trousers, the murderous crowd chanting lock him up! The provocateur was an itinerant preacher in a threadbare rabat and pieces of an infantryman’s uniform, boots, and greatcoat he must have pulled from a dead soldier. Thatcher had stood astonished, watching violence in its own bloody birth canal.”

To this Mary replies, again echoing modern events, “When men fear the loss of what they know, they will follow any tyrant who promises to restore the old order.” Thatcher makes the scary reply, “If that is our nature, then nature is madness. These are more dangerous times than we ever have known.”

Thatcher’s friend, Carruth, also seeks the truth and decides to tell it, no matter what the consequences. Again, as in modern times, Carruth wonders how people can be bamboozled by demagogues against their own interest.  How is that possible? Thatcher explains, “They are happier to think of themselves as soon to be rich, than irreversibly poor.” Carruth nodded thoughtfully, “A delicate business, telling the truth.”

Cutler,  Thatcher’s superior at the school, knows nothing of Darwin. Nor does he want to discuss the scientific method of searching for the truth. “His brand of science is an edifice built of scriptures and saints.” It is a strange science. One willing to convict Thatcher of being a veritable witch entirely without evidence. Such men fear the truth. “Men like him dread new views, for fear they’ll set aside their hard-earned credentials and begin their climb again at the bottom rung.” He compares these men to persecuted Darwin: “Darwin explains geographic distribution with beautiful simplicity, compared with the buttresses and gargoyles of Cutler’s angel bridges. His strange science is a falling house. If I train young eyes to be observant, they will see cracks in his construction of the universe.” Cutler’s “science” is as shaky as Thatcher’s house.

Cutler “speaks to those who want nothing new. And that is most people nowadays. They hunger for any crumb of explanation that sustains their old philosophies.’ Thatcher thought of the riot he’d seen in the Boston square, the scarecrow Darwin hanging from a lamppost, the crowd terrified witless at the prospect of shedding comfortable beliefs and accepting new ones…People want comfort.” Yes people want shelter. Being unsheltered is scary.

But I have been neglecting the modern family. They too face being unsheltered, and no one finds this more challenging than Willa the matriarch. Her husband seems oblivious to the danger. Her son is off chasing money. But her daughter, Tig, who never got anything right, so it seemed, finds she can deal with it. She is resilient.

In fact Tig is critical of Willa and her father. They kept searching for the security of tenure, by moving from town to town, and in the end when he finally got tenure, it dissolved in his hands.  As Tig says, “You made such a big deal about security that you sacrificed us any long-term community.” Now her mother is worrying about a shaky house when the world as they know it is dissolving. Here is part of their conversation:

“Mom. The permafrost is melting. Millions of acres of it.”

Willa tried to see a connection. “And I’m just worried about my house. That’s your point?”

Tig shook her head.  “It’s so scary. It’s going to be fire and rain, Mom. Storms we can’t deal with, so many people homeless. Not just homeless but placeless. Cities go underwater and then what?  You can’t shelter in place anymore, when there isn’t any place.”

Willa tucked her hands between her knees and declined to believe those things.”

Willa desired a different truth. So Tig like Thatcher more than a century earlier has to deliver the bad news—truth in other words—to people who don’t want to hear it. They just decline to believe it. The world is collapsing but people just don’t want to hear about it. They want to worry about their house without a foundation, when all of civilization has no sound foundation.

Willa can’t see changing their lifestyle.  She tells Tig, “I’m human, Tig. We live, we consume. I think that’s just how we have to be.” To this resignation to collapse Tig replies, “Of course you think that. When everybody around you thinks the same way, you can’t even see what you’re believing in.”

Tig envisions the world to come. So different than the world of her mother. Her mother wanted her kids to have more than her. A natural motherly reaction. Are we parents not all like that? But the world has changed and the old one is not coming back. Someone has to face that truth. People seek comfort and instead get uncomfortable truths. Dusty, Willa’s grandson won’t have the same life his grand mother had. He will have to deal with it.

As Tig says to Willa,

“He’ll have to learn to be happy with what he’s got. He doesn’t’ get a choice. He got born in the historical moment of no more free lunch. Friends will probably count more than money, because wanting too much stuff is going to be toxic. We didn’t’ ask for this, it’s just what we got. ”

“Thou shalt not want.”

Something like that. Waste not, want not.”

But Willa cannot face this truth from her daughter. It is not the truth she wants.

“…You’re offering me this Mad Max scenario of pirates taking everything they can grab, and I just can’t accept it. It’s to horrifying.”

“Seriously Mom? It’s here. One percent of the brotherhood has their hands on most of the bread.  They own the country, their god is the free market, and most people are so unhorrified they won’t even question the system. If it makes a profit, that’s the definition of good. If it grows, you have to stand back and let it. The free market has exactly the same morality as a cancer cell.”

Only Tig in her family can face this ugly truth. Like Thatcher earlier. In a court of law, of all places, he finds another truth that  the people of Vineland cannot face—that their lord and master, killed a man without justification. The jury does not want to face that truth. That truth is also too ugly for them. It is too uncomfortable.

At last Thatcher sees light and air coming into the court when a court reporter lifts the window. This was a “heaven sent vision.” Thatcher realizes he cannot say more. He has done his bit to deliver truth:

“He was finished with declaring himself to a public without ears to hear his language. Without shelter, we stand in daylight, she’d insisted once, and he had thought only of death. Simple man. He might sleep in a bed of cactus thorns or a tree under the stars, but he could choose the company he kept and it would not be this fearful, self-interested mob shut up in airless rooms.  They would huddle in their artifice of safety, their heaven would collapse. His would be the forthright march through the downfall.”

So both owners of the house fail to bring the truth to people who can hear. But—perhaps—not all is hopeless. There is some slim hope. Ilana Masad, commentator on National Public Radio reviewing the book may have got it right by saying, “Kingsolver doesn’t give us solutions, but she reminds us to take comfort in one another when we can, and that hope is necessary even when all seems lost.”

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