In her latest book, prize-winning author Barbara Kingsolver (whose book Prodigal Summer I adore, read a review here: https://wp.me/p6N6mT-pZ ) ties together two stories: one modern family saga and one taking place at the dawn of scientific modernity, the 1870’s.
Our modern main character is Willa Knox. She and her extended family, who are forced to move to a dilapidated house (inherited from a deceased Aunt) in Vineland, NJ after a series of financial and emotional disasters. Willa’s circumstances have left her exhausted and furious: both she and her husband — after years of hard work and education — have been laid off. He is now under-employed and she not at all. To make matters worse, they were evicted from previous home and upon moving to Vineland, have become the care-takers of her severely ill father-in-law; her adult daughter who has left college to drift between menial jobs; her newly-widowed adult son and his months-old son.
The family’s financial state continues to deteriorate after the move: medical bills, repairs, expenses for caring for the infant, debits now coming due from everyone in the house; pushing Willa to her limit. How in the world will they manage? Will she spend the rest of her prime years caring for a baby and (abusive, ungrateful) dying man? If the house collapses, will the six of them be homeless? Where is the “better” life she was always told was just around the corner?
In a desperate search for any information that might help the family, Willa enters the town’s historical society and learns that it is possible her home was once lived in by a very famous female scientist named Mary Treat. Mary was a respected biologist whose research (often published under her husband’s name) hugely influenced Darwin, Asa, and several other modern scientists. The thought that enters Willa’s mind: is her home was once Mary’s perhaps a grant or gift to preserve it might save them all.
In the alternate chapters, we travel to Vineland, NJ circa the 1870’s to meet Mary Treat and her neighbors, the Greenwood’s. Mary is a vibrant woman, defiant of societal norms imposed on women, diligently conducting multiple scientific studies about the flora and fauna of New Jersey, and staunchly defending the (at the time) widely reviled theory of evolution put forth by her colleague, Charles Darwin. Defending scientific modernity was still a risky endeavour at the time, as it was seen as a challenge to both the church and to the “common sense of man.” How could unseen forces (such as molecules or gasses) be affecting man? What could humans have in common with insects? How could plants be beneficial, beyond providing food?
In the face of this wide-spread ignorance, Mary must continue her work. Falling under her spell is her neighbor, Thatcher Greenwood. An idealistic science teacher from Boston with hopes of teaching the young minds of Vineland about the amazing natural world around them. Thatcher is frustrated and disgusted to learn that his ideas about modern science are considered blasphemous and are not allowed to be taught at the local high-school. Mary becomes his only ally in his defense of science. However, Mary is a woman with some financial resources, some powerful colleagues, and international fame. She can, to some degree, manage to upset the local authorities with her work. Thatcher Greenwood cannot. He is responsible for a household of women for whom nothing is as important as conformity. If he stands up to his employer, he risks the livelihood of his entire family. The closer he grows to Mary, the more ardent he becomes a supporter of theories of modern science.
Exploring political and social themes that marked the late 1870s and today — such as political powers that exploit the working class, authorities denying scientific evidence, and the worsening gap between the rich and poor — Kingsolver tries to uncover reasons so many to fight violently for the status quo, refusing to change with the changing times. People must evolve too, they must adapt to new ideas, new realities, and be willing to flexible about what the future may hold for them. The future is coming, whether we are ready or not.