I’ve read both the above books in the past two weeks and, in their own ways, they both deal with the environment, the nature of humanity, and the effects of poverty on families.
Unsheltered, Kingsolver’s first novel since 2012, focuses on two families living a century apart on the same corner of two streets in Vineland, New Jersey. The present-day family finds itself inexplicably living on the edge of poverty – Willa Knox and her husband have been hard-working professionals who both lost their jobs because of economic cutbacks. They live in a dilapidated, inherited house with Willa’s obnoxious father-in-law and their free-spirited, wayward daughter. When their Ivy League-educated son is hit by a tragedy, he too comes home, unemployed, with a baby in tow. Together they live in a house that is literally falling down around them, unable to afford the upkeep.
In the alternating story in the 1800s, Thatcher Greenwood is a teacher and scientist, frustrated by not being allowed to teach his pupils about evolution, and irritated by his shallow wife and social-climbing mother-in-law. His next-door-neighbour, Mary Treat (a real life character) is a self-taught botanist and scientist who corresponds with Darwin about her findings, and Thatcher is drawn towards her intelligence and curiousity. His house both literally and figuratively starts to crack and strain as he further cultivates a friendship with a newspaper reporter who, too, believes in evolution.
Unsheltered is a book that focuses on the human condition, how we are time and time again faced with adversity, and how we yet again respond with resilience. Kingsolver quite obviously points out the political and environmental mess that Trump is creating, though she only refers to him as ‘The Bullhorn’, and she allows Willa’s daughter, Tig, to point out the dangers of climate change and the devastating impact humans are having on the earth.
The above points are what caused me not to be captivated by this novel. I felt that I was being lectured by Kingsolver about the environmental and economic concerns facing humanity; her tone is didactic and some of her characters one-dimensional. I finished it, but with no great satisfaction and disappointment that it did not live up to my expectations.
Where the Crawdads Sing:
Despite not knowing what a crawdad was (a crayfish), I preferred this slightly clichéd novel, set in coastal marshlands of a quiet seaside town on North Carolina’s Outer Banks, where families live hidden within the marshes, considered ‘white trash’ by others. Here Kya Clark is abandoned one by one by family members escaping an abusive, alcoholic father. When her father also finally walks out when she is still little, she is left to live alone, fending for herself. Known as the ‘Marsh Girl’, she is mocked by the townsfolk for being ignorant and dirty – she only lasted one day at school and after that always evaded the truant officers. When one of the town heroes is found dead in the marshes, Kya is conveniently accused of murder and detained.
Despite her reputation as the ignorant ‘Marsh Girl’, Kya is an intelligent young woman who spends her days in the marshes observing and understanding the flora and fauna of this unique environment. Her skill in this area finally lead her to being a published expert on the marshes, a fact unknown by the town residents. Kya is portrayed by Owens as a beautiful, long-legged, sexually-innocent teenager who attracts the attention of two very different young men, both of whom break her heart. Despite my irritation at these hackneyed characterisations, I still enjoyed the book as I was drawn to Owens’ detailed descriptions of the briney marsh lands, and the plants and birds within it.
All in all, I found it a more satisfying read than Unsheltered, which at one stage I considered abandoning (only my allegiance to Kingsolver kept me going), while I read Owen’s book in two days.
(As an aside and perhaps of interest to South African readers, Owens is the co-author of The Cry of the Kalahari, which depicts her and Mark Owens’ time living in the Kalahari Desert in the 1970s, a book I remember reading and enjoying.)