Tuesday, May 04, 2010

The Lacuna, Barbara Kingsolver

Growing up in America in the 70s and 80s, the enemy was the Soviet Union.  I hadn't even heard of Islam, but I knew that the Russians were oppressive and freedom-hating and evil. Why were they so malevolent and irredeemable?  Because they were Communists, of course...oh, and we didn't (don't) like Cuba, China, most of Eastern Europe, Vietnam, or North Korea for the same reason.

Now, clearly the Communist experiment has failed in almost every place it has been tried, usually because "power to the workers" inevitably became "power to the dictators", and civil rights were all but ignored in favor of stability and the "greater good"-the greater good, of course, being whatever was best for the ruler.  But what Americans seem to be so good at forgetting is who our friends used to be (Russia against Hitler, Iraq against Iran, the Taliban against the Russians).  After all, World War II would not have been won if it weren't for those commies.  We even let them divide up Europe afterward as a reward!  The truth is, it wasn't until the Soviet Union started threatening our status as sole major world power (can't be a "super power" until you have an "arch enemy") that we began to see "communism" as a threat.

What does this history lesson have to do with the price of Russian tea in Red Square?  Well, I'll tell you, comrades-it is into the turbulent time from the end of the Depression to the early 1950s that Barbara Kingsolver has set her latest book, The Lacuna.  The Lacuna is the story of Harrison Shepard, a bi-racial 12 year old with a Mexican mother and Anglo father.  The story begins after Harrison's mother has dragged him to a small island off the coast of Mexico to live with her lover, an oil man who is supposed to marry her and make her rich.  This pattern repeats through most of Harrison's young life.  While there he discovers a lacuna, or hole in a cliff that leads to a protected cove where ancient peoples once lived.  This theme of a hidden truth is recurrent over and over throughout the book.

Over time, we Harrison leaves his mother's care and spend a year or two with his father in Washington, D.C.  And when I say "with" I mean at a boarding school.  There he meets his first love-another boy named Billy.  Add another layer of hidden truth to our narrator.  He leaves school, returns to Mexico, and starts working as a plaster mixer for the great artist Diego Rivera.  Enter the communists-Rivera and his wife Frida Kahlo were both important figures in the workers' revolution in Mexico.  As Harrison gets older, he becomes a secretary to first Rivera, and then to  Lev Trotsky.  That's right, the evil Trotsky, who masterminded the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia with Lenin and Stalin.  The rest of the book details what happened to him as a result of his association with these "notorious" communists.

I loved this book.  Harrison is rather subdued as narrator, often minimizing his own role in favor of sharing the larger-than-life personalities he is surrounded by.  In the world of the novel, the only reason his story gets told at all is because his own faithful secretary, Violet Brown, eventually puts together his many journals.  Because you see, above all else Harrison is a writer.  He writes like most people breathe-constantly and effortlessly.  His obsession with recording everything leads to some personal trouble along the way, and to some rather public trouble in the end.

The thing that struck me the most about this novel was the sympathetic portrayal of the "evil" communist Trotsky, who history is showing not to be the monster he was said to be by American propaganda, and the way that Kingsolver showcased the beginnings of the Red Scare.  She really shows the evolution of America as Soviet ally to America as Soviet-hater, and God help you if you had ever been associated with anyone even tangentially related to communism.  Joseph McCarthy was gonna get you!  She also did a great job of showing how the press can be manipulated to get people scared enough to believe almost anything.  Barbara Kingsolver always gives her novels a definite sense of place, and the settings in this story are no different.  She has once again given us a beautifully crafted, thought-provoking story

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