Sunday, May 20, 2018
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Kingsolver's new novel brings alive historical figures, questing protagonist

Barbara Kingsolver has woven fiction with history and politics before - Nicaraguan Contras in Animal Dreams, postcolonial struggles in Congo in The Poisonwood Bible - but in The Lacuna she unfurls a brilliant tapestry of the United States and Mexico in the mid 20th century through the life of one man.

From his vivid childhood in Mexico in the 1920s to his confrontation with the cruelties of McCarthyism in the '50s, Harrison Shepherd is always an outsider in some way. Son of an American father and a Mexican mother, he has a foot in each land but firm standing in neither.

That doesn't prevent him from stepping into history here and there. His mother - a slang-slinging flapper with the heart of a gold digger - divorces his dad and takes young Shepherd off to Mexico, where she is always pursuing the next sugar daddy. The boy starts picking up odd jobs whenever Mother is between men and money is short. In Mexico City, one of those jobs is mixing plaster for a certain renowned muralist who is working on a magnificent painting in the National Palace.

Even before he meets muralist Diego Rivera, Shepherd sees a "fantastical sight" in the marketplace, a servant girl carrying a cage full of birds on her back and following her mistress, "an Azteca queen with ferocious black eyes. Her hair was braided in a heavy crown like the Isla Pixol girls, and her posture very regal, although she wore the same ruffled skirts as her maid."

Shepherd is smitten by the woman, who turns out to be Rivera's wife, artist Frida Kahlo - even though his snobby mother calls her "a piece of calico, all spuzzed up like an Indian." Before long, Shepherd is working for the couple as a cook and secretary, reveling in a household filled with exotic visitors and passionate conversation about art and politics (not to mention the frequent battles between Frida and Diego, neither of whom is a stickler for monogamy). Shepherd and Frida become confidants, as she says, "one pierced soul to another."

Shepherd doesn't just take it all in; he takes it all down. He's an indifferent student but has kept a journal since childhood, collecting them one by one. They make up most of this book, although just how that comes about is almost as complex a story as Shepherd's own.

Among Frida and Diego's shared passions is communism - hardly remarkable in the 1930s. So prominent are they in the party that exiled revolutionary Lev Trotsky becomes their house guest. Driven out of Russia, then Europe by his former comrade Josef Stalin, who has had most of Trotsky's family and friends killed, Lev has few options. His vocal opposition to Stalin means he can't go to the United States; as Rivera says, "Britain and the United States will want Russia on their side, if there is a war. So they can't let Trotsky be right about Stalin being a monster. They are going to need that monster."

Shepherd becomes close to Trotsky and is devastated when he makes a couple of minor errors in judgment that play a role in the Russian's assassination. In the ensuing investigation, the household is fractured and Shepherd's notebooks are confiscated.

An assignment to transport Frida's paintings to a U.S. gallery turns into a wartime job for Shepherd, overseeing art storage in Asheville, N.C. He settles there, his heart warmed by the shared sacrifice and patriotism of Americans during World War II. He begins to write books - none that have anything to do with his own life, but big, juicy historical novels set in Mexico (think James Michener meets Cortes and the Aztecs).

He also meets the next very important woman in his life, Mrs. Violet Brown. Born in the Appalachian hollers, married at 15 and widowed at 16, she moved into town for a better life. With her near-Shakespearean dialect and her proper white gloves, she is a formidable character, and sharply intelligent. Advising Shepherd to keep writing about the long ago and far away, she says of Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel, "Some in Asheville were disgruntled to be left out of the story, and all others dismayed to be left in, thus the scandal was entire."

Shepherd has another reason not to write about his own life: He is very discreetly but very definitely gay, not a socially acceptable option in mid century America. But his historical novels take off, and soon he's prosperous and even, in a writerly way, famous.

Until his next collision with history. Just as warmly as Kingsolver paints Shepherd's Mexican adventures, she creates a chilling portrait of the McCarthy era's devastating attack on freedom in the name of anticommunism. The false accusations, smear campaigns, and wild rumors that ruined lives and trampled the truth in those dark days of the Cold War are all the more chilling for their echoes in the present.

The book's title reverberates throughout the story. As a boy in Mexico, Shepherd dives into an underwater passage called a lacuna, making a perilous swim to emerge in a pool in an edenic jungle grove. But the word also means a missing piece, especially of a written work - like Shepherd's lost-and-found notebooks - or perhaps the missing piece of a heart that is always searching for a home.

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