In a living room in Vineland, New Jersey, in the 1870s, a botanist and entomologist named Mary Treat studied the activities of carnivorous plants and reported her findings to her colleague, Charles Darwin (Treat is extensively referenced in Darwin’s Insectivorous Plants). Treat also corresponded with others — Charles Riley, Asa Gray — about these plants, the tower-building tarantulas she kept in her house, about ant colonies and swamp ferns, and wrote articles and books on her observations. ‘Treat’s work deserves to be better known,’ writes Barbara Kingsolver, in her acknowledgments for Unsheltered — and, perhaps, here, we find the motivation for this deeply searching, curious and passionate novel, in which Treat appears as the neighbour of one of its fictional protagonists.
Two narratives, set 150 years apart, seem, at first, disparate except for their setting. In the late 1800s, Thatcher Greenwood, a science teacher at a high school in Vineland, argues with his creationist boss about teaching Darwinism, seeking solace, refuge and intellectual kinship in his neighbour, Treat. And, in 2016, Willa struggles to hold her family together, after her daughter returns unexpectedly from living in Cuba, her son — a new father — loses his wife to suicide, and Willa receives news that hers and her husband’s house in Vineland is on unstable foundations.
Kingsolver ties these two lives together. Treat — a character who seems to exist outside of time, more connected to the natural world than most of its human inhabitants — is one of the threads. Treat’s studies in nature become microcosms of society, mirrors in which the narratives of each characters’ lives are reflected. Her observations of spiders — ‘certainly they notice [relocation], but eventually they go on about their business’; they rebuild their houses when they are destroyed — carry weight when Willa’s son, Zeke, and his newborn have to move back home; when ceilings collapse in the house; when the then-threat of a Trump presidency becomes more realistic.
In the tower-like webs of spiders, Kingsolver has us recognise the precariousness of any shelter, metaphorical or not: our homes, bodies, jobs, theories, beliefs, relationships. Some shelters are better destroyed and rebuilt, too: in the light of new findings by Darwin in the 19th century, creationism; today, the feeling that resources are not finite, that children will forever have more than their parents. ‘Without shelter, we stand in daylight,’ Treat says. And, like an echo through time, Willa’s daughter, Tig, says: ‘You’re going to end up in rubble. But it’s okay because without all that crap overhead, you’re standing in the daylight.’ The two narratives run eerily parallel to each other. At one point, Treat seems to speak directly to the reader: ‘We are all of the same world.’
This is a novel about truth — prioritising progress over comfort and safety — and, also, about survival. It is far-reaching, ambitious and successful in its ambitions; it is a lesson in natural selection. History is shaped, Kingsolver seems to say, by what people, theories, buildings and legacies survive, and, here, she plays her part in the endurance of Treat’s legacy.