By Chet Yarbrough
If readers liked “The Poisonwood Bible”, Barbara Kingsolver’s latest work, “The Lacuna” is a complementary addition to her oeuvre. Rather than being transported to the Belgian Congo, Kingsolver takes the reader to Mexico in the early 1930s. She introduces Mexico’s history, its artists, and the famous Russian communist, Leon Trotsky. Kingsolver explores missing pages of life.
Like the missionary family in “The Poisonwood Bible”, the main character is repatriated to the United States with a scent and sense of the country left behind. The story of Harrison William Shepard begins at age 13 in Mexico. He is witness to and son of a Mexican mother that leaves her American husband, an American diplomat, to follow a Mexican oil merchant back to his home country.
Shepard is immersed in a dysfunctional Mexican family where his mother is the mistress of the oil merchant, otherwise known as “Mr. Produce the Cash”. His mother changes lovers like she changes clothes but she provides a sense of identity for Shepard by indulging his interest in writing about life in notebooks that become the basis of Kingsolver’s fictional story. His mother is killed in an automobile accident in Mexico while rushing to meet her new American lover at the airport.
One begins to see and understand Shepard’s insecurity; i.e. his sexual awkwardness and confusion about human relationships. Shepard becomes an observer, a note taker, an adaptive survivor. Like its title, Shepard is lost in a gap or an unfilled space by a self-indulgent mother and absent father. Shepard searches for stability by latching on to a cook that teaches him how to make a meal. One learned skill leads to another and Shepard fills his unfilled life-space as a plaster maker for Diego Rivera, a renowned Mexican muralist. Shepard becomes platonically attached to Rivera’s wife, Frida Kahlo (also an artist).
Both Rivera and Kahlo are known Mexican’ communists; they become a family’ haven for Leon Trotsky when Lenin dies and Stalin takes control. Trotsky is marked for death by the Stalinist regime.
Trotsky has a falling out with his Mexican fellow-travelers and asks Shepard to join him as his secretary in a separate domicile. Shepard chooses to leave the Rivera household but maintains a close platonic relationship with Frida Kahlo. Trotsky is assassinated. The report of the assassination is distorted by the media. Trotsky’s killing and anti-Stalinist beliefs are grossly misrepresented and misunderstood in the United States. This distortion is a recurrent theme beginning with the book’s title and continuing through the life of Harrison William Shepard.
Kahlo offers Shepard a job to escape Mexico by returning to the United States as an Art Exhibition transporter. Shepard escapes with his notebooks to settle in Asheville, N.C., Kingsolver’s cleverly chosen town; i.e. the town of famous author Thomas Wolfe. The cleverness is that Wolfe is an ostracized writer in his own town just as Shepard becomes a marginalized and equally ostracized writer in America. Shepard becomes a successful writer by drawing on his interest in Mexican history. He creates two best sellers and then becomes ensnared in America’s paranoiac distortion of communist infiltration in American government. J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI and the rise of Joseph McCarthy destroy Shepard’s peace.
Kingsolver is a cerebral literary artist. She packs “The Lacuna” with a consistent theme of missing reality, missing pages of truth that resonate with history. Stalin is a brutal fact of history; Trotsky is a man of missing pages. The “Red Scare” distorts reality by creating lacunae in people’s lives; i.e. empty spaces and missing parts that can be used by others to infer guilt by association. Shepard is identified by a faceless American’ public as a communist because he lived in Mexico; he associated with Leon Trotsky; he had Mexican communist’ friends.
Every news editor that insists on dual source verification understands the meaning of “The Lacuna”. Kingsolver’s story is personal and universal; i.e. Shepard asks; also needs, to be left alone, but he hungers for recognition of the person he is; i.e. a person without missing pages. History and individual human lives are filled with missing pages; i.e. lacunae. As the warning goes–“judge not that ye be not judged” (King James version of Matthew 7) because judgments always have missing pages.