The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver
Published by Harper Collins ISBN# 978-0-06-085257-3
One of my all-time favorite books is Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible, about a family of American missionaries in the Belgian Congo in 1959, about the time of the end of colonialism in Africa. Kingsolver draws the reader into an unfamiliar world, with interesting, yet flawed, characters.
Her latest novel, The Lacuna, tells the story of Harrison Shepherd, a young boy born to an American father and Mexican mother. His mother leaves his father to chase after a wealthy landowner in Mexico, with Harrison in tow. Harrison sees a unique woman in a market, and ends up befriending Frida Kahlo before she becomes a famous artist. Harrison shows a talent for mixing plaster, and Frida's lover, Diego Rivera, hires Harrison to work for him.
Harrison becomes immersed in their artistic and political world. Artists are notoriously difficult, and Frida and Diego fit that stereotype. Through them, he meets Leo Trotsky, the exiled Russian Communist leader. Trotsky trusts few people, and Harrison becomes one of them, so he works for Trotsky.
When Trotsky is murdered in front of him, Harrison heads back to the United States to live. He is an enigma to his neighbors, and even more so after he writes a novel that becomes a best seller. His Communist party ties come back to haunt him as the US government is beginning to ferret out the dangerous Communists in their midst.
I read this book for Books in the City Immigrant Stories Challenge and it fits the bill doubly. Shepherd is an immigrant in both of the countries he lived in, and at home in neither. Although born in the US, he spent much of his youth and young adulthood in Mexico, where he was considered a gringo. When he came back to the US, he was unfamiliar with American customs and way of life. He was a man without a country.
I enjoyed how Kingsolver used real historical characters and events to tell Harrison's story. I was fairly unfamiliar with Kahlo and Rivera's life and work, and although I knew a little more about Trotsky's life, I learned so much about that period of time, much like I did when I read The Poisonwood Bible.
The story is told through the diaries that Shepherd kept, along with some commentary from his secretary, Mrs. Brown, who is a wonderful character. She wanted Shepherd's story to be told, and was unwavering in her loyalty to her boss.
My favorite part of the story was Shepherd's fight to clear his name. The parallels between the poisoned, fearful political atmosphere in the 1950's, and the political atmosphere of today are intriguing. Either you are with us or you are against us, and if you are against us, you are not a patriot. All of the name calling on the cable news shows- calling anyone who wants universal health care a socialist, for example- while reading this book, you know the more things change, the more they sadly stay the same.
The Lacuna is one of the best books I have read this year. There is so much to ponder and ruminate over, and the historical setting and characters make this novel a dream for history buffs and lovers of great literature.
Rating 5 of 5 stars
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