This was our first time reading a fiction novel from our book club, but unfortunately we still did not get much participation. My mom and I read it though and we had fun comparing notes together afterwards.
Due to low participation, we have decided that this will have been the last book club discussion we organized. If you are terribly sad and want us to try another month of book club, please let us know in the comments. We can always consider reviving book club again in the future.
Here is the recording of the live book club discussion from last week. The following are questions I asked throughout.
1. What were your initial impressions of the book? Did you change your mind at the halfway point? At the end?
The best word I can think of to describe this book is “meta.” It comments on itself. It breaks the third wall as they say in film theory. We go from being that fly on the wall to suddenly having the characters look directly at the kino eye and talk. I’ll dig up some examples…
Page 53: “But two minimum wages weren’t noticeably better than one. She’d probably written lines like that in her better-paid journalist days, believing herself savvy to working-class woes. In some sheltered life she could barely see from this one.”
Page 68: ” 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.”
Page 296: “What kind of world left the critically ill in the hands of amateurs feeling their way in the dark?”
Page 409: “Mom. The permafrost is melting. Millions of acres of it.”
I noticed this aspect of the book pretty much from page 1 and I’ve read other articles that mention it too. It’s definitely not an imagined phenomenon. The question is how comfortable do we feel being talked at like this? The answer will determine whether Kingsolver succeeded in her bid to “draw readers in, rather than provoke them to throw the book (Afterword, p. 467).”
Well, I didn’t throw the book, so I guess it worked out. I have to wonder if the way we feel like we are being talked at is really impossible to avoid, when we’re reading about such contemporary issues that affect the very fabric of our lives. We feel so connected to them. Pulling out one fiber on the warp is going to feel like a big snag in all the other little fibers that are connected to it on the weft.
Even if we personally have not been affected by student loan debt, a fallout like the Tavoularis’ had when they lost their house and pension because the college was going bankrupt, or drowning in medical loans, we have probably known someone close to us who has. These very scary financial realities are a sign and symptom of our times, to the point where they almost define it. A fiction world rife with these issues is going to “draw us in” inevitably, simply for the fact that we are living in this world too and it’s actually not fiction.
Once I started to understand that the book is meta because it has to be meta, because there is no other way for it to be, I found that I could enjoy even the most meta passages more. This was of course the case for the contemporary chapters, which I read through very quickly. The historical fiction chapters took me longer to read. I’m not sure if it’s just because the context was more unfamiliar to me so it took me longer to absorb, or if it is because I stopped a lot to look up words and old fashioned slang the characters were using. I wanted to understand every detail. Did you know that “crinolines” were a big hoop skirt made of bone, or alternatively 18 layers of very heavy petticoats? Women may have had some gorgeous fashion in 1875, but I surely do not envy them their crinolines!
At our discussion Mom mentioned that she had researched the history of Vineland and found out that much of what Kingsolver fictionalized in the book is actually true! Vineland, NJ was actually set up to be a Utopia. But I was most surprised to learn that Landis’ murder was in fact a real historical event. As they say, truth is stranger than fiction…
2. How fast did you read the book? Did you feel “into it” the whole time?
When I first picked up Unsheltered, I was really excited to read it. I am a big Barbara Kingsolver fan and have read most of her other books. Even better, the themes this one purported to cover fell perfectly in line with everything we talk about here at Gold Millennial! What was not to love?
I think I was just riding on that wave of excitement because I breezed through the first quarter of the book in two days. I only put it down because, this was actually way back in October, I had to finish reading Leaders Eat Last for our October book club! Then I decided to wait to pick it back up again until closer to our scheduled discussion. I thought I would read it pretty fast, and I like to have a book fresh in my mind before a discussion.
I also wanted to pace myself though. I don’t know about you guys but whenever I read fiction too fast I feel like I end up forgetting most of it much sooner than when I read a story slowly over time, for example taking a day or two in between chapters to really digest what I read. Usually story elements end up cropping up serendipitously in my life right on cue, and then of course those elements become unforgettable.
So I picked the book back up at the beginning of January, and read steadily throughout the month. Strangely though I did not get that “can’t put it down” feeling I’d expected. My mom said she got the same feeling too, even though she was listening to the story as an audiobook. She read some Good Reads reviews for this book and said that several reviewers commented the same thing. Most of Kingsolver’s prior novels are the “can’t put it down” type, but this one just isn’t.
Here’s a question from Liz on Goodreads: “I’m less than 1/4 through and don’t think I can finish. Can anyone give me a good reason to stick with it? Poisonwood Bible is one of my all time favorites but I’m finding this one to be tedious and more of a lecture than a novel.”
Laurie agrees, saying, “I am with you. I’m so disappointed in this book because I like Kingsolver so much as a public figure and essayist. There’s no way I can finish it. All the characters are mouthpieces for her politics. I’m being lectured at with every sentence… the dialogue is so stage managed it feels like high school writing. I can’t believe an editor let her get away with this.”
But others disagree. Melissa says, “I’m honestly shocked you feel that way. Reading this, for me, was hugely refreshing. It’s nearing my 100th book read this year, and this one glimmers with the rare quality of being a great work of literary accomplishment. I enjoyed every moment of it.”
Although there were no qualms about its didactic nature, the book surely has its merits. It may just not be for everyone.
3. What do you think Kingsolver’s primary objective was in writing this book, other than to entertain? What messages is it trying to get across to us?
Certainly Kingsolver wanted to tackle many contemporary financial and political issues here. The struggles of the modern family in a world where you thought that simply doing the right thing all along would end you up at Countryside Estates. The desperate fall when we realize that life has more that one color-blocked little road, and we don’t all get to end up there. In fact some of us end up totally unsheltered.
“This [is] not a new story.” As Kingsolver writes in her Afterword: “I’m an American novelist, and I tend to write about very American things: the conflict between individual identity and communal belonging. The insidiously dangerous myth that anyone can be rich, if they work hard enough. That sort of thing (468).”
I also love my mom’s interpretation of the word “unsheltered” because it’s different than this straightforward definition of it referring to the characters’ actual houses. She says, “We have to try to see the big picture, step out of our comfort zone (hard for those who have been sheltered) and try to make things better. Lots to ponder.” Hmm yes, lots to ponder indeed.
In this way, becoming unsheltered is a metaphor for awakening to a reality that was always there, that we may have been “too sheltered” to see before. “Unsheltered, I live in daylight (463),” reads the note on the back of Thatcher’s drawing at the end of the book. When we step out into the daylight, or even if we are forced there, we suddenly “see” so much more.
4. How does Unsheltered portray millennials? Do you think Kingsolver hit the nail on the head or missed the mark?
Personally, I think she hit the nail right on the head! I got so excited when I read the first few chapters because I related quite intimately with the modern characters. For example, “Zeke embodied the contradiction of his generation: jaded about the fate of the world, idealistic about personal projects (68).” Zeke himself was interning with a company in Boston and not getting paid. He could have been on the payroll, but it would have meant he would have to start paying back his student loans, and he wouldn’t be able to afford them (26). Ironically, he couldn’t afford to get paid.
“Different as they were in temperament, father and son shared an unrealistic faith in good financial fortune. They expected it. In Iano’s first-generation immigrant family, they might as well have had a cross-stitched sampler on the wall saying ‘God Bless Our Capitalist Home.’ Something in his bones promised Iano he was going to get into the club, and he’d passed that on (116).”
I think this illustrates really well how our Baby Boomer and Gen X parents have passed on this mythical belief that no matter what, hard work = success. It’s not their fault that it turned out to be the big fat lie of the century. Ashes, ashes, we all fell down.
5. What character do you relate most to, and why?
My mom said that she related most to Willa, just trying to hold her family together, but that her favorite character was Tig, and that Tig reminded her of me. I was flattered to hear it, and surprised. It’s funny how we cannot see ourselves objectively! I didn’t see the connections until she pointed it out. I also see the irony in this whole situation of having read this book only with my mom and she and I corresponding to the characters of Willa and Tig, at least generation-wise. It’s pretty neat that the two of us read it simultaneously and can compare perspectives on the same story.
Now I see that I do have a lot in common with Tig, at least superficially. I might not be as hyper-conscious of environmental stewardship as Tig. That is really a core, defining aspect of her personality, and for me it’s just something I try to be marginally conscious about. I recycle and use my reusable shopping bags at the grocery store and I always cloth diaper my babies 100%. I like to repurpose old things. Last week I made seat cushions out of old foam and an old table cloth. But I have to admit that I possibly do have a love interest with Ziplock baggies…
If I hadn’t been an Army wife having babies in Georgia at the time, I can definitely see myself having shown up at Occupy. If I had still been the crazy, single gal I was blowing in the wind, sure. I had lots of friends who did go actually, and stay, so I was at least able to vicariously follow the drama peripherally on Facebook.
It’s also kind of just a funny coincidence that our partners are both Puerto Rican men, although it is a travesty that I have still not learned Spanish, and Tig is just amazing like that so of course she has. I guess I feel somewhat inferior to Tig because of that and because she seems to have such a lucid grasp on Life and What’s Going On With The World that frankly goes over my head most of the time. This is kind of an elusive feeling to try to describe, but I guess I do relate to her, I just don’t feel as synced up as she is to It All.
As Mom pointed out, Tig was really the only character who seemed at peace with the status quo. She didn’t fight it, she didn’t rage against the dying of the light. She accepted it, surrendered, and went with the flow. Through her, Kingsolver seems to be telling us that this may be our only option in terms of survival.
On this subject I have to add that I loved the scene on pages 360-363 when Tig and Jorge make sorullos and tostones. At our house, however, we do eat tostones with mayo 😉 It’s actually a “special sauce” made of ketchup mixed with mayo. This is the way my husband’s family from Utuado has been eating tostones for generations. Maybe they just do it differently in San Juan. The cooking process described for tostones is exactly the same as how we make them though. I had never heard of sorullos before. I asked and José said, “Sorullos? Yeah they’re good. They’re made out of cornmeal.”
6. The book ends on a positive enough note, but most of what comes before is pretty negative. Do you think we are left with much hope for the future of our society? Why or why not?
I personally wasn’t buoyed by anything I read in the final chapters. I know it’s not all doom and gloom, but our future does look pretty dark. I was happy that the Tavoularis seemed to work out their shit in the end, but they are simply one individual family. I don’t think Kingsolver left us with much hope for our society.
The only glimmer of hope I see she left us is this idea of being unsheltered, and that maybe it’s not such a bad thing after all. Maybe it means we “get real” on reality and then we decide to live more like Tig and Jorge. In a tiny house, cloth diapering our children, growing gardens. At our discussion Mom said, ” I believe minimalism is trending.. many people are downsizing and living ‘smaller’ realizing too much stuff is a burden and a waste.”
Maybe it means we must shed the materialistic, selfish ways of older generations, and buck up to the fact that the Gen Zers like Dusty are simply “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 (412).”
The cultural shift is already leaning in the direction of living tiny, or at least minimalist lives, so maybe we are all going to figure our shit out, and be okay.
What did you think of Unsheltered? Are you inspired now to read the book? Let’s keep the conversation going…