Friday 10 December 2021

The Finger in the Fly Trap - Barbara Kingsolver's 'Unsheltered'. By Judith Allnatt

Barbara Kingsolver’s most recent novel, ‘Unsheltered’ explores the acrimonious debate between evolutionists and creationists in the 1870s, alongside a contemporary ‘state of the nation’ narrative  revolving around a downwardly mobile family living in a collapsing house. The historical story, which I found fascinating, features the renowned female biologist, Mary Treat, whose dedication to scientific observation extended to holding her own finger in a Venus flytrap for hours to test the strength of its insect-dissolving juices.

Mary Treat corresponded with Charles Darwin, providing him with observations of American plants from the Pine Barrens, an area of virgin woodland near her home in Vineland, New Jersey. Although she had little formal education she studied, observed and experimented, becoming an expert in her field. No doubt, given the usual lot of women at the time this was only made possible by the absence of her husband, from whom she was separated, and by the happy chance of being a woman of independent means.

In ‘Unsheltered’, Kingsolver invents a neighbour for Mary: Thatcher Greenwood, who on his first visit discovers Mary surrounded by glass jars full of flowers. Closer inspection reveals that each contains a cobweb built in the shape of a tower . . . and the tarantula that built it. Mary has used the flowers as a disguise to avoid alarming the ladies who visit her, who would disapprove of her interest.  

Thatcher also has to resort to subterfuge in his work as a biology teacher at the local school, trying to circumvent the strictures of his headmaster, Cutler, who abhors the new theory of evolution and is prejudiced against both scientific method and rational argument. 
The ‘utopian’ town of Vineland was the brainchild of the historical figure, Charles Landis. He is presented as an authoritarian figure who uses his wealth and power to further his own ends. This seems a fair assessment of his character given his history. His arrogant sense of entitlement was such that criticism in a local newspaper led him to shoot the editor in the head, a case that came to be referred to as the murder on Main Street and for which Landis was excused on the trumped up grounds of ‘temporary insanity’. Cutler has the support of this city father and attempts to frustrate and humiliate Thatcher at every turn. 

Kingsolver brings the fictional characters Greenwood and Cutler together head- to-head in a public debate on evolution versus creationism, which is chaired by Landis. Through this climactic scene she explores some of the responses to evolution of the time: ranging from reluctance to consider it, to a ‘flat earth’ fervour to discredit it. 

In the face of Cutler’s bluster and the audience’s scepticism, Thatcher illustrates his argument for genetic modification by using examples of natural selection in a wolf pack and of the whitening of the coat of the Arctic hare, over time.

The debate is entertaining, with a fine sense of the ridiculous. Cutler brings the Bible to his aid but is unable to explain how, if Noah took only one pair of each kind of animal onto the ark and then burnt some of them on the Lord’s alter, the species could have reproduced. He then claims that the development of varied species on different landmasses despite all creatures having been brought to Mount Ararat,  occurred through God parting the seas to allow creatures to cross to other continents. Thatcher points out that for a prairie hen, walking at four miles an hour, even the leg of the journey from Europe to America would take two years – quite a time for the ocean to be parted.

Thatcher cites Occam’s Razor which contends that a simple explanation (ergo evolution in this case) is more likely to be correct.He moves the debate to  Mary Anning’s fossil record, showing that beasts such as the plesiosaur have existed and no longer do so. Cutler is willing to discount the evidence of his own eyes, dismissing the fossils as a hoax. He believes that God creates only perfection so He cannot have made a creature for it to be extinguished. ‘God doesn’t make mistakes!’ he roars. 

As well as claiming that Man is above the animal world and not part of it, Cutler muddles society and science, drawing extensively on the notion of order, creating his own version of the medieval ‘chain of being’ which he perceives as threatened by the notion of racial equality, or even women wearing trousers, which he rates as ‘turning against God’s domestic harmony'. The strongest driver for sticking to the status quo of belief in a Divine order is revealed to be vested interest in the existing societal power structure.

In choosing the title ‘Unsheltered’, Kingsolver refers not only to the imminent collapse of the decaying house in the modern story but to the choice to forego comforting beliefs and instead consider experiment, evidence, rationality, enlightenment. The crumbling house becomes a metaphor for, among other things,  old beliefs being stripped away. Kingsolver has her character, Mary Treat, identify a silver lining of clearer vision saying : ‘Without shelter, we stand in daylight’. In 'Unsheltered' Barbara Kingsolver has   transformed her historical research into a compelling and thought provoking novel. 

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