Retirement has given me the luxury of time to try things I would never have tried before, writing this book review being one of them. I am doing this because the book I just finished left me agitated, depressed, and wanting to talk. This is a condition I often find myself in when faced with the anti-rationality of Americans (and others), especially as it relates to particular periods of history, the present period being one of these. Now that I think about it, this is probably not the best way to introduce a book I loved and which I am urging others to read, but let’s get on with it anyway.
The book is The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver. I saw that there were many reviews/commentaries about this novel on-line, but, not wanting to be influenced, I only peeked at the one in which an interviewer asked Ms. Kingsolver if the protagonist of her book, Harrison Shepherd, was a historical figure. Her answer was “No.” This is relevant, because many of the book’s characters are, including Frida Kahlo, Leon Trotsky, Diego Rivera, J. Edgar Hoover, the House Un-American Activities Committee and its predecessor the Dies committee (which took on the roles of “character”), and Presidents Hoover, Roosevelt and Truman.
The story takes place in several locales, as our hero moves from Mexico to Washington D.C., back to Mexico and finally to North Carolina. The settings become interesting when you see the intersection of each place and a particular historical period, for example, Washington D.C. between 1932 and 1934, when returning WWI veterans and their families are living and protesting from a tent city and warehouses they are squatting in on Pennsylvania Avenue. They are doing this because the U.S. government has reneged on its promise of a particular pension sum for vets. When, in 1935, Harrison Shepherd moves back across the border, he meets in this post-Mexican and post-Russian revolutionary era, a large group of artists and thinkers who look to Lenin and Trotsky for their ideals of the perfect workers’ and peasants’ state. In the last third of the book, we see what life in the U.S is like during WWII from the perspective of those who stayed home, and we suffer through the turmoil created during the witch hunts of the forties and fifties.
Merriam-Websters’ defines lacuna as “an unfilled space or interval; a gap.” In the book, the spoken lacuna is a deep, cliff cave, which can be entered only during very low tides when its mouth is visible. Harrison Shepherd learns to dive and explores this lacuna during part of his childhood on a Mexican island, living with his Mexican mother and a wealthy man she hopes will marry her and provide her with material comfort for life. This was far from the only gap portrayed in the book. There was the gap between Shepherd and his mother, who discovered that trying to attract a wealthy man into a stable relationship was a full-time job, followed by the gap between him and his American father, a federal bureaucrat as cold as an icicle.
Beyond the family issues, the novel revealed gaps on a much bigger scale, gaps between institutions such as government and the media, and reality, between public opinion and reality, and between the world views of the middle class and poor.
This book was thoughtfully and beautifully written, a little slow-going at first, but easy to stick with knowing that every word and sentence served a purpose in the unveiling of the rich details of one man’s fascinating life. What got me riled was the parallels I saw between the past and the current eras, such as the fear of “others,” that is, those who weren’t born here, as well as the current use of “socialist” to describe whatever a person or the government does that someone doesn’t like. “Communist” was the word one flung at one’s enemies in the forties, whether or not the label was an accurate descriptor. Despite my moments of angst, this was by far the best book I’ve read in 2010. I highly recommend it.