I’ll tread lightly discussing this recently published book since there are those who haven’t read it yet and they will certainly want to. I’ll do my best to avoid any kind of spoiler and focus instead on why I’m compelled to highlight this novel and add it to our Feminist Booklist.
Kingsolver’s Unsheltered (2018), generally billed as a work of fiction, reveals in the Acknowledgments that it is in good part historical fiction. Would it have read differently if I had known up front that the setting and one of the characters, the one most intriguing to me, are based on a true story?
That may be why Barbara Kingsolver (feminist, writer, environmentalist and activist) doesn’t unveil that Mary Treat really existed until after the story wraps. I encountered the same with Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings (2014), discovering in the Author’s Notes that the story is based on the real lives of the Grimke sisters, Sarah and Angelina, abolitionists and women’s rights activists. I was blown away.
Maybe that’s what works best, blowing us away after we’ve read the book, then discovering these beloved characters were real.
In the Acknowledgements, Kingsolver says:
“Mary Treat was a nineteenth-century biologist whose work deserves to be better known. She comes into this novel as a construction from her journals, published writings, and correspondences with Charles Darwin, Charles Riley, and Asa Gray”(463).
Riveted, I set out to learn more about Mary Treat and discovered she “was a naturalist from New Jersey and a major contributor to many scientific developments of the nineteenth century. She is most well known for her extensive work in botany and entomology. Four species of plants and insects were named after her…Over the next 28 years she wrote 76 scientific and popular articles, as well as five books. Her book Injurious Insects of the Farm and Field (1882) was reprinted five times (http://www.womenhistoryblog.com/2014/08/mary-treat.html).
Reviving remarkable females through current works of fiction that are widely circulated is brilliant. Readers encounter a good read while introduced to a hidden figure, such as Mary Treat (1830-1923). Of course, Unsheltered is about so, so much more than Mary Treat, but she plays a prominent role, as she should have in real life.
Barbara Kingsolver, is a #NastyWomanWriter, illuminating a noteworthy scientist, Mary Treat, a #NastyWoman of STEM and #NastyWomanWriter, in her most recent novel, Unsheltered.
© Maria Dintino 2019
History of American Women. http://www.womenhistoryblog.com/
Kingsolver, Barbara. Unsheltered. New York: HarperCollins, 2018.