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The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

Posted By John R. Guthrie On November 17, 2009 @ 12:19 pm In Fiction Reviews,Historical Fiction | 4 Comments

The Lacuna: A Novel
by Barbara Kingsolver
Harper, 528 pp.
CLR Rating:

A Historic Convergence of Art and Politics

Frida Kahlo was petite, birdlike, with a permanent limp due to severe injuries suffered in a bus accident as a teen. The accident damaged internal organs, as well as her right leg. Her injuries ultimately required some three dozen surgeries. You can see in her self-portraits [1] her undeniable mustache, her unibrow, both of which she refused to conceal or remove. It is not surprising that her paintings, esteemed by art lovers worldwide, reflect her suffering.

Yet there was beauty about her, a raw sexuality she did not hesitate to exercise. Jolie-laide, beautiful-ugly, the French would say. Her husband, Diego Rivera, was 21 years her senior, a tall and unprepossessing man with an ample belly and “eyes like boiled eggs.” “The frog,” some called him, including Frida.

Diego and Frida were staunch Communists, dreaming of a classless society, Diego even had the house at 47 Positos Street in Gunajuato, in the center of Mexico, built without servant’s quarters. Devoted Communists or not, Frida and Diego soon realized that picking up one’s dirty socks from the floor or washing one’s dirty underwear were nowhere to be found in the job description of either great artist. Soon a retinue of cooks, maids, drivers, and eventually, bodyguards, were crammed into nooks and crannies inadequate for housing them.

About those armed guards: From1937 to 1939 they had a house guest, a short, stocky man with an immense dome of a forehead and graying black hair. He made it a point to wear fine pajamas at night, knowing he might be murdered in his sleep. To be found dead in threadbare sleepwear would be an affront to the dignity of Lev (“Leon” is another transliteration) Trotsky. He was a Menshevik (Russian: “minority party” as opposed to, Bolshevik,”big party”). Whatever his shortcomings, compared with his nemesis in the Soviet leadership, Stalin, Trotsky was angelic. Trotsky is the third of the four major characters of Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna.

The Lacuna (Latin, “a void,” here the void between historical reality and what is generally recalled) provides a concise and interesting summary of Trotsky’s dispossession by Stalin. Once Stalin clawed his way to the leadership position, he sent out agents of the GPU (“Office of State Security,” one of several predecessors of the KGB). These agents, assassins actually, systematically tracked down Trotsky and his family, including his children and his close associates. Around the globe, wherever they sought refuge, GPU agents found them. Then they killed them.

The fourth major player in this historical drama is fictional; Harrison William Shepherd. Shepherd has an American father, a “government bean counter.” He and Harrison’s Mexican mother, Salomé, separated. She took the child to Mexico with her, expecting to marry her lover, a Mexican oilman. Though she and her son were in residence at the oilman’s hacienda on Isla Pixol, a small island off the coast of Mexico, the businessman had other ideas than marrying Salomé. A coquette, she attempts to enthrall one or another man into marriage and thus the upkeep and maintenance of herself and her child. One such lover is American businessman P.T. Cash, “Produce the Cash,” she calls him.

After his mother’s untimely death, Harrison is on his own, happening into a job mixing plaster for muralist Diego Rivera, then working and residing in his household as a cook and typist.

Shepherd’s story provides a frame for the body of the book, which begins and ends with his life story. He is a literary foil that provides continuity through his letters, journals and the articles he reads. A voracious reader, he is self-educated. Harrison becomes a best-selling author, penning books of historical fiction concerning the Aztecs. His archivist, at first identified only as, “VB,” enters the narrative after Harrison settles in Asheville, N.C.

Eventually Harrison comes to the attention of the House Un-American activities committee. He lived in a household with Communists as a teenager, thus in the fearful logic of the McCarthy era he had to be a dedicated Communist.

The journey to the interesting denouement for these four principals is a fascinating one. The book is filled with historical tidbits that add to the allure of this work. One example of such is the assault on the Bonus Marchers who encamped in Washington, D.C. in the spring and summer of 1932. The reader witnesses this pivotal incident (It helped assure Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s election that same year) through the eyes of Harrison. The veterans of Belleau Wood, Verdun, Château Thierry, the Marne and other storied killing fields of WW I Europe, arrived in Washington by the tens of thousands, peacefully petitioning for the military service bonus they had been promised. Many had their wives and children with them. President Hoover took exception to their presence and ordered Secretary of the Army Douglas MacArthur to drive them away. MacArthur brought in an infantry unit. Other sources indicate that it was George Patton, then a major, who arrived with a tank platoon and cavalry out of Fort Myers, VA.

The bedraggled and hungry vets, watched as the cavalry came online. The vets cheered, thinking that the display of military pomp and pageantry was in their honor. Civil servants left work and lined Pennsylvania Avenue to witness the spectacle. The ensuing scene is sadly reminiscent of the Czar Nicholas’s Cossacks assault on petitioning workers in St. Petersburg’s “Bloody Sunday” in 1905.

At 4:45 PM, the U.S. cavalry was given the order, “CHARGE!” They did so, followed by the infantry, then the tanks. The sabers of the horse soldiers’ slashing blades glittered in the weak sunlight of late afternoon. The civil servants watching cried out, “Shame! Shame!” MacArthur, though he’d been ordered by President Hoover to stand down after the initial routing of the veterans, refused to stop. He continued his armed pursuit of the hapless veterans into their “Hooverville,” the pathetic collection of hovels built from scraps of plywood, sheet metal and other detritus where wives children, and the wounded sought refuge. Then they put the shanties to the torch, forcing the veterans and their loved ones to flee to who-knows-where. MacArthur rationalized his actions by claiming, inaccurately, that the veterans had, “Communists,” in their midst. President Hoover, perhaps making virtue of necessity, said later that he completely agreed with MacArthur’s insubordinate decision. General/Secretary Collin Powell’s statement concerning U.S. machinations in Chile in 1973 come to mind; “that’s a part of our history we’re not very proud of.”

The ultimate resolution, the lives and quandaries of Shepherd, Rivera, Kahlo, and Trotsky are all fascinating. Even when the reader knows what’s going to happen, as in the case of Trotsky, the memory is likely to be obscure; a picture faded by time. The Lacuna adds enticing detail as it brings the historical figures into sharp focus.

At 507 pages, The Lacuna is a large and important work, one powerful enough to allow for this minor criticism. Kingsolver, in the first hundred pages or so, creates exposition using the childhood hardships of Harrison Shepherd and his mother. This section could benefit from judicious editing and a bit more of a hook to compel the reader to read on. This work doesn’t really take wings until somewhere between pages 50 and 100.

Even so, to hold The Lacuna in one’s hand, to read it, is to witness and experience years of distilled effort and research. Like Diego Rivera’s murals, it is a lager-than-life work full of color, life, and movement, one executed by a masterful artist at the height of her creative powers.


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[1] You can see in her self-portraits: http://calitreview.com/747