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'Unsheltered' Tackles The Unhealed Divisions In America


Barbara Kingsolver is the bestselling author of "The Poisonwood Bible" and "The Lacuna." After six years, she has a new novel which tackles the divisions in America that have been around for a long time and remain unhealed. The book is called "Unsheltered." And she joins us now from WEHC in Emory, Va. It is my great pleasure to have you on the program.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: This book is done in alternating chapters set in two different time periods - one just after the Civil War in 1871 and the other in 2016 America. Tell me why those periods and what you think they have in common?

KINGSOLVER: I wanted to write about how people behave when when their world seems to be coming apart. And why do we keep trying old solutions to new problems when it looks like they're not working anymore? And I also realized it's hard to understand a crisis when you're in the middle of it. I chose this moment in the 19th century right after the end of the Civil War when the country was absolutely as polarized as it is now on very much the same geographic lines and sort of cultural lines.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Talking about race, talking about the economy struggling and...

KINGSOLVER: Urban versus rural, industrial versus agrarian - we really were two countries. And people could not imagine how to put them back together. And into this walks Charles Darwin with two new books he released into the world that caused people to have to question their place in the universe. And it seemed to me that it would be interesting to take a set of characters who were living in that time and a set of characters in this time and put them both in the same place.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And the place where they are living is Vineland, N.J. And it has this fascinating real history which you uncovered while researching this book. It was a place that was originally created as a sort of Utopia.

KINGSOLVER: Absolutely a Utopia - it was found by Charles Landis in the 1860s as a Utopian community. But Utopia in the terms that he and people in Victorian times could imagine which still contained a lot of class, gender and racial bias. So it was Utopia except that the workers were doing all the work and the rich people were having this lovely lecture series on the life of the mind so...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And so many of the characters are real people.

KINGSOLVER: They are - Charles Landis, the petty dictator of this town. But most interesting to me of all is a woman named Mary Treat who was a lady scientist, as they called them in those days, a naturalist who corresponded with Darwin and who'd worked with him through correspondence on various experiments. And she was really a strong advocate of Darwinian worldview.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So in that era, you pit the sort of scientists like Mary Treat and other characters and the journalists of that era against the demagogues in the form of the man who founded the town, Charles Landis.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: And then, in this modern era, the main character's also are journalists. And the family has fallen on hard times. They're dealing with failing health care and poverty and unemployment. And they're also debating the 2016 election. And they're feeling panicked, too. The certainties of life are being swept away but differently.

KINGSOLVER: Yeah. They also are experiencing this disorientation. This is a family of people who really mostly followed all the rules. The adults, anyway, have followed all the rules. Willa, the protagonist feels like she did everything right. She got her college degree. She worked hard. She's been a journalist for most of her career. And in her mid-50s, her magazine folded. She was a great editor. But there were no jobs for people like her. Likewise, her husband is an academic. And their family has followed his quest for tenure from city to town. Finally, he got tenure and then his college folded. So all of the problems this family has are problems that are - you know, sort of come from the...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The real life that we see.

KINGSOLVER: Yeah. I was going to say sort of my standard, you know, meeting with friends - you know, afternoon with friends. The things we talk about are all of these things. People are losing every kind of shelter. Even people who have not felt that they were particularly vulnerable a decade ago are finding that the rules have changed and that all of these various kinds of shelter that we've all counted on are crumbling. So now what?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You compare these two areas quite pointedly with two of the leaders of that and this time. The president, Donald Trump - although you don't name him - and...

KINGSOLVER: I don't know who you're talking about.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...And Charles Landis, the sort of demagogue of the town.

KINGSOLVER: It's really not about leaders so much as people's willingness to be led. I'm interested as a novelist in, you know, the human psyche. That's our paintbox. We look at behavior and look at the different things people do in response to crisis.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You have Mary Treat saying, I suppose it is in our nature when men fear the loss of what they know. They will follow any tyrant who promises to restore the old order.

KINGSOLVER: Yeah. I did write that (laughter).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So this is a very political novel in as much as it grapples with the big themes of the moment - climate change, science, journalism. What is the role of art in this time?

KINGSOLVER: I think the role of art in any time is to look past the door frame and the window frame into what's just outside our daily experience to try to broaden people's vision a little bit in any way that the novelist feels capable of doing that and to create empathy for the theoretical stranger. And I wanted to look past blue states, red states put (inaudible).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Because you live in Appalachia, right? And so you have a particularly unique perspective on this.

KINGSOLVER: I do. I live in a very rural place, southwestern Virginia. I also work in a profession that means most of my colleagues are in urban places, mostly in New York. So I moved between red state and blue state, between rural and urban, between these two cultures that are so divided that they've really stopped talking to each other. They only talk about each other. And I'm the bat. You know, that's neither mammal nor bird. I have to fly between these cultures and see what I could render for the reader in terms of interest and in terms of sympathy.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I feel there's a bigger question looming over the book in comparing these two times separated by 150 years in which many of the same issues are being debated. Is this novel saying that there really is no progress, and we always end up in the same place?

KINGSOLVER: Well, I don't think it's saying that exactly. I do think it's saying people are people. There are things about us that will always be true. One of them is that when we feel there's a scarcity, we get real grabby.


KINGSOLVER: We want to get ours. I think it's deeply embedded in our nature, in our DNA to be suspicious of the other of strangers or people who seem different from us. These are all inclinations. That's not to say it's how we should be or even that it's how we always are. But I also want to remind you that I write literature. So I really work in the domain of sentences and images and character and personality. So above everything, I want this to be really fun to read.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's a great read.

KINGSOLVER: Thank you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Barbara Kingsolver's new book is "Unsheltered." Thank you so very much.

KINGSOLVER: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF SQUARE PEG ROUND HOLE'S "A-FRAM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.