We follow two stories over a hundred years apart and set in the same location; Vineland, New Jersey, a town originally established as a utopian community in the late 19th century by visionary entrepreneur and autocratic control freak Charles Landis.
In today’s world, Willa and her family are threatened by a full set of very modern challenges including unemployment, casualisation, childcare, costly health care, collapsing housing and fragile mental health. She and her close family, ostensibly ‘middle class’, are living on the edge of absolute poverty without the protection of universal welfare support and assumptions of steady progress which she expected as a baby boomer who tried to do everything right. As the decline continues, Willa is also gradually uncovering the story of the pioneering woman naturalist, Mary Treat, who lived in the same street, and possibly the same house, over a century earlier and is a genuine historical character. All of this is overshadowed by a growing awareness of the unsustainability of the current economic system and the rise of a xenophobic demagogue towards the U.S. presidency; a man who boasts the he could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and people would still vote for him.
Back in the 1871 incarnation of Vineland, its founder’s rhetoric of freedom and opportunity is already transparently ‘fake news’ given the reality of the town’s yawning inequality. We see Vineland through the eyes of the fictional Thatcher Greenwood; new High School science teacher and enthusiastic advocate of Darwinian evolutionary theory. He befriends Mary Treat and is deeply impressed by her intense commitment to observation and rationality and the fact that she is in scientific correspondence with his hero Charles Darwin and writes journal articles on entomology and botany. With the support of Mary, Thatcher feels able to challenge the blinkered and obscurantist opposition to Darwin’s theory coming from Vineland’s leading citizens and eventually finds himself at the centre of a sensational and historic murder trial involving the shooting of an unarmed man in broad daylight.
Before the murder or the trial, Thatcher is drawn into a public debate about natural selection with his employer, the blinkered and dogmatic High School Principal, Professor Cutler. The confrontation, chaired by Charles Landis himself, is framed as ‘Darwin versus Decency’ and designed to expose Thatcher as a dangerous Darwinian who seeks to undermine the accounts of holy scripture. Cutler and Landis are hoping for an excuse not to renew Thatcher’s teaching contract.
Thatcher is encouraged by Mary Treat and his spirited sister in law, Polly, to hone his arguments and present them as succinctly and persuasively as possible and he rises to the occasion:
“I would like to make four statements that will offend no one in this room… First principle. Individuals within a population are variable… Second principle. Traits in their variation are inherited…”
Thatcher admits that the mechanism for this inheritance is not known and suggests an ‘elixir for transmitting character’ in the absence the science of genetics. This draws scorn from Cutler, who says: “I do not like the sound of that. I do not. It makes me think of a witches brew” and booms that characters are only transmitted because God wishes it so.
Next I offer the third principle which is death. Death stalks us all!… Into this world more lives are born than are granted to live…
Here is the last of my four principles: survival is not haphazard. Creatures differ in their ability to survive, not by chance but owing to traits inherited from their progenitors. And with these four declarations of the obvious. I’m finished!”
This brilliant set piece debate is the core of the novel and is mirrored by some less formal, but equally lucid, 21st century debates about values, growth and sustainability between members of Willa’s family with their different perspectives.
Each story sheds light on the other and the parallels are never forced or contrived, In their various ways, the people in both narratives are facing the prospect of losing some of the shelter of their lives; with comforting certainties withdrawn and exposure to new ideas, new conflicts and social fracture of various sorts. They are starting to piece together the new social relations which they will need to confront a new reality.
Mary is instrumental in helping Thatcher see clearly what is necessary:
“…your pupils depend on it, Thatcher…they will go on labouring under old authorities until their heaven collapses. Your charge is to lead them out of doors. Teach them to see evidence for themselves, and not to fear it.”
“To stand in the clear light of day, you once said. Unsheltered.”
In the twenty first century, Willa reflects on human learning as she watches her grandson start to master the skill of standing up:
“First they would stagger. Then grow competent, and then forget the difficulty altogether while thinking of other things, and that was survival.”
In the late nineteenth century, denying the evidence for the mechanism of evolution might provide short term comfort for some, but this ‘shelter’ would become increasingly difficult to sustain. And today, turning away from the reality of environmental and social breakdown and the drastic action needed may also offer us a little respite, but ignoring the enormity of the crisis is no solution. In order to survive, we need to both understand the world as it is and start thinking about building a better one. Pretending that we can shelter from the truth just puts things off and makes the transition more difficult.
Unsheltered gives us a humane perspective on many of the challenges we face today. As we grow up and learn to stand, stagger and face the crises and confusions of our world, it offers us the consolation of clarity and love.
‘The Overstory’ by Richard Powers (March 2019)
Primo Levi on work and education (May 2016)
‘Carthage’ by Joyce Carol Oates (February 2016)
Hadrian, the enlightened pre-enlightenment leader? (December 2015)