I have heard it described by a few authors, this technique of asking readers to consider a truth which they instinctively reject. I heard Chris Cleave, author of Little Bee, share his own technique at a conference. It was several years ago, so I am working from memory, but he spoke about asking readers to see difficult realities as if from the corner of their eye. Not head on. The power of a writer to bring readers face to face with truth can be the writer’s own demise. And of course there is my life theory from Emily Dickinson, to “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.”
In Unsheltered, Barbara Kingsolver has mastered this trick of the author’s trade. She has somehow managed to capture the angst of our times, help us understand that it is not necessarily unique to our time while simultaneously unsettling my complacency and giving me hope.
All in a delightful cast of characters navigating tumultuous cultural shifts in the microcosm of their personal dramas. Sounds a lot like my life for the past three years. Maybe that’s why I enjoyed the book so much.
I don’t want to give away any details of her cleverly constructed plot. But I do want to gloat a bit (as you likely will if you read it) about the many times I exclaimed “I swear I’ve said the exact same thing,” about words and ideas she draws from her characters. I feel as thought Barbara Kingsolver has been listening in on my conversations.
For example, about air travel, the protagonist Willa’s husband complains about a US cross-country flight.
“Iano had returned to the subject of his miserable flight. It was a little maddening but Willa understood she needed to hear this out so he could move on. “It’s over five hours, this flight, and they feed you nothing. I’m crammed into a space the size of a dog kennel, I have to pee, and I’m starving….These airlines are supposed to be transporting humans. They used to do that. Now they don’t. Nobody could fit comfortably in that space. What kind of passenger are they making these airplanes for?”
Right? Haven’t you said something like that?
Or the comments Willa must navigate, delivered by her twenty something left leaning daughter, Tig.
“Plus,” Tig said, “it reminds me to be patient. Seeing all these people that have passed on. I get frustrated sometimes, waiting.”
“For people to die?”
“Yeah. To be honest. The guys in charge of everything right now are so old. They really are, Mom. Older than you. They figured out the meaning of life in, I guess, the nineteen fifties and sixties. When it looked like there would always be plenty of everything. And they’re applying that to now. It’s just so ridiculous.”
Yes, I have fantasized about the day the old guard will pass the torch (or the torch will be wrestled from their grasping hands). I am encouraged by the women, young and old, coming into leadership in the world. And I remain hopeful that this will make a difference.
Or Willa’s explanation to her husband, after a dispiriting day navigating a healthcare appointment for her father-in-law, with no chance of getting him treatment. Some glitch in health insurance during a major life transition.
“Sweetheart, it’s not your fault. I know you signed up. You did everything you were supposed to do , and it should have been enough. And still we totally and completely struck out. I’m not sure we have any options for Nick.”
“What is this, Iano? It’s like the rules don’t apply anymore. Or we learned one set, and then somebody switched them out.”
When I talk to young parents at the preschool where I work and the conversation turns to having more children the comment is always, “can’t afford it.” When I had my children, our health insurance covered every penny of the cost. Young people now talk about saving for kids. Not a college fund. A fund to pay for pregnancy and delivery. When did it become too expensive to have children?”
Barbara Kingsolver makes me feel heard. She makes me feel less alone in my shock at how much the experience of living has changed since I was a young mother. And she invites me to consider where this all might be going.
Another conversation between Willa and her daughter, Tig.
“The thing is, Mom, the secret of happiness is low expectations.”
“Wow. That’s what I raised you to believe in? Low expectations?”
“What did you want me to believe in?”
“I don’t know. You can be anything you want. Hitch your wagon to a star and all that jazz.”
Tig didn’t smile. “I saw you and Dad doing that, hitching your wagon to the tenure star, and it didn’t look that great to me. You made such a big deal about security that you sacrificed giving us any long-term community.”
“You and Dad did your best. But all the rules have changed and it’s hard to watch people keep carrying on just the same, like it’s business as usual.”
Perhaps all the rules have, indeed, changed. But perhaps not. Yet, I love Barbara Kingsolver because I never close a cover on her books feeling hopeless. By the very nature of her story line, the characters she researches and brings into the light, the history that she brings forward into my present, reminds me that human beings are nothing if not resilient. That transition is not without casualties, change is not without suffering, but I am reminded that I can still embrace our ability to adapt. At least that’s what I read. But I’m not sure that’s what she intended. You’ll have to judge for yourself.