The Lacuna, Barbara Kingsolver

This book is a powerful exposé of our country’s experiences and eventual recovery from the time of the depression until after World War II, up to and including the McCarthy era. The reminder of the world’s decay and the violent politics of that time made me shudder as I read it.
The book traces the life of a fictitious person, Harrison Shepherd, a rather lost soul, born in the United States of an American father, a government worker, and a Mexican mother of rather loose morals. He is shuttled from one country to the other, without clearly identifying with either one, Mexico or the United States. He has no anchor to either place. His anchor is to the lacuna*** he discovers as a boy, when his loneliness leads him to become a swimmer and to explore the ocean’s floor. As the story begins, so it ends.
While Harrison Shepherd’s character is made up out of whole cloth, the reader will recognize many of the other characters in the book that lived at that time: Hoover, Churchill, Trotsky, Lenin, Stalin, Kahlo, Rivera, Truman, Nixon, McCarthy and so on. The events in the countries discussed, actually took place.
Illuminated for us by Violet Brown, his stenographer, we learn about the politics of Shepherd’s employers and of the countries they represent. She opens a window into his private life, his sexuality and his thoughts. She leads us on his journey as he tries to survive his haphazard existence, as a young man, in a troubled world. He is largely innocent, naive and unaware of the dangers awaiting him in the outside world.
Alternately during his life he is a plaster mixer for Diego Rivera, a confidante to his artist wife, Frida Kahlo, a secretary to Leon Trotsky, a cook and later on an accomplished novelist in the United States. Shepherd’s journals, diaries, and fictitious correspondence, primarily with Frida Kahlo, lead us on a journey through the period of his life in Mexico, when he lived with his mother and worked for the Riveras, until he was returned to his father in the United States and attended a military school. After that brief sojourn, he returns to Mexico to work again for the Riveras, proceeding from there to work as secretary and cook to Trotsky, the exiled Russian. Later when he again returns to the United States, he becomes an author of some renown, attracting the attention of the Un-American Activities Committee, and finally returns again to Mexico, going back to his lacuna after being disgraced by false innuendo and false accusations.
Kingsolver has done a monumental job of describing the events and atmosphere of those times. All of the heroes and villains of the day are drawn clearly and their emotions and fears are captured perfectly. How difficult it must have been for her, as a writer, to write a story about a writer, and to make that writer have a style of his own, apart from hers, and yet, she did it magnificently.
The first part of the book was the weakest one for me. It was a bit tedious, but after that, the pace picked up and the book branched out connecting fact to fiction and held my interest. Kingsolver has shown how, on several occasions, a few power hungry men, politicians of all stripes, radicals and extremists, came together to alter the course of history. Their extreme views caused panic, fear and ultimately, obedience. The media fanned the flames by printing information regardless of its veracity, because they were not so much concerned with the truth but rather with the size of their audience.
The most frightening message for me, gleaned from this book, was that we are today in the midst of a similar atmosphere in which the politics of division are being ramped up and paraded across front pages of newspapers and a media still intent on readers rather than facts is shaping our history and our world.
Once again we have a political situation in which a leader is allowing the country to be corrupted by false statements, soundbites, inference and fear which tend to incite the country to move in a particular direction and turn against a particular segment of the population. The enemy has changed but the false accusations are the same and the results can be catastrophic. Are we headed down the same shameful road to ignominy that we traveled with McCarthy? As the media and politicians once fanned the flames of hate and fear and closed the minds and mouths of those that disagreed, silencing all opposition, are we not now, with our political correctness echoing those times? In the time of the novel, communism was the ugly enemy, in today’s time, success appears to be the enemy, as class warfare is encouraged and waged against innocent, successful people, a situation promoted and worsened by the media and politicians of all stripes. Is truth stranger than fiction or is art imitating life? Once, speaking out against government policies was likely to falsely brand you as a communist, today, doing the same, will likely falsely brand you as a racist. I don’t think either policy is worthy of this country! This book was published in 2009. Perhaps it needs to be reissued again.
***For purposes of this book, the lacuna, which refers to something secret, has many meanings.


About omasvoice

Who am I? I am you. I am everyone out there who loves to read and discuss and voice an opinion!
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