Thursday, April 1, 2010

Barbara Kingsolver - The Lacuna

Barbara Kingsolver - The Lacuna

Oh my, what a fine book. And what a necessary book for these days, when militias and birthers and tea partyers are behaving with the same hysteria that Senator McCarthy and Richard Nixon and their ilk produced a half-century ago.

Harrison Shepherd moves with his mother to Mexico, after the mother leaves her marriage in search of romance and adventure. The adolescent Shepherd finds work with the household of Diego Rivera and his wife, Frieda Kahlo. Shepherd cooks and mixes plaster and generally makes himself useful as Rivera and Kahlo blaze across the Mexican political landscape. Before too long, Trotsky and his entourage become part of the party.

And that is the first third of this novel.

Like many recent novels, The Lacuna combines real historical personages with fictional treatment. We have seen it done well and clumsily, and here it works masterfully. Violet Brown, the no-nonsense stenographer Shepherd hires once he has returned to the United States, tells much of the story, which allows Shepherd to be two or three times removed from the historical events. Thus, WWII and the subsequent anti-communism witch hunts are described from her perspective as well as his.

I must mention the vivid descriptions of all of the places in this book, especially Mexico. Shepherd as a cook allows us to participate in many meals, lovingly described. The weather, both in Mexico and in Asheville, North Carolina where Shepherd made his U.S. home, can make your fingers feel frost-bitten, or make you sweat from the summer nights on the town plaza.

The implacable, unimaginative, self-righteous minions of McCarthy are chilling. They conjure up visions of life as seen by the Tea Party rioters we see on television today. As one who lived through the excesses of McCarthyism, I can testify that I was more frightened by the last third of the book than by any preceding threat, even the physical threats against Trotsky.

Readers and critics may well concentrate on Harrison Shepherd, but the real heroine here is Violet Brown. She has made her own life, moving beyond her peasant hill country family. Intensely loyal to her employer shepherd, she plays the role of Greek chorus here.

I hope this book gets wide readership and lots of comments. It's far and away Kingsolver's best book.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home