Unsheltered, by Barbara Kingsolver, is about a middle-class family struggling to make ends meet as the 2016 presidential primaries unfold. “One underemployed breadwinner, five dependents,” Kingsolver writes of the Knox-Tavoularis family, whose members are designed to represent variously aggrieved members of the white American electorate. At the center of the novel is Willa, a magazine editor turned freelance writer. In her orbit are her husband, Iano, a tenure-track professor turned adjunct instructor; her son, Zeke, a Harvard graduate turned unemployed single father; her daughter, Tig, a Millennial loner turned leftist organizer; her dying father-in-law, Nick, a blue-collar worker turned Trump supporter; and Zeke’s infant son, Dusty, heir to a doomed future.
The novel, Kingsolver’s eighth, chronicles Willa’s attempt to save her dead aunt’s house, a crumbling Victorian mansion in Vineland, New Jersey. An (actual) old Temperance town whose soil once made it attractive to glassmakers and chicken farmers and the founders of Welch’s Grape Juice, Vineland lost its raison d’être after a line of pesticide manufacturers poisoned the land and fled, along with many of the town’s jobs and a noticeable portion of its white people. The Knox-Tavoularis family has since inherited the house, and Willa sees signs of Vineland’s decline everywhere. When she glances at the yard of her neighbor Jorge, she sees a “vehicle boneyard” and hears “intermittent Spanish expletives of frustration or success” as the boys next door tinker with abandoned cars. Young mothers pass her on the sidewalk “conversing in a musical Asian language.” Her daily walk takes her past “a pawn shop, the welfare office, a Thai restaurant, and the Number One Chinese Market.” She thinks that if she had to pitch an article about the town, its headline would read: “Nineteenth-Century Utopias Gone to Hell.”
If Vineland is supposed to be a microcosm of the United States in 2016, then the house is an excuse for Kingsolver to cram five people with disparate political allegiances under one leaky roof. Family dinners are exhausting opportunities to rehearse the major fault lines in mainstream American politics. Willa wonders why it seems like “there’s less money in the world than there used to be.” Iano bemoans his lack of job security, blaming his failed tenure bids on jealous colleagues and rumors of affairs with students. “Boundaries, everybody keeps saying this word and I never get it,” he complains. Zeke and Tig bicker about finance capital and ecocide, volleying clichés at each other while Willa watches, bemused, and Iano submits clarifying comments. “Grow or die, that’s just the law of our economy, Tiggo,” Zeke says. “There’s no more room to grow,” Tig snaps back. “Supply and demand,” offers Iano, who we are supposed to believe has a doctorate in global politics. Nick mutters racist epithets and rails against Obamacare. The baby puts things in his mouth and cries. This is the American-family novel as Sunday-morning talk show—a character drama with no real characters, only sound bites masquerading as human beings.